Genetics Firm Lands Role In Autism Research

By Kerry Fehr-Snyder for The Arizona Republic

A national group has tapped Arizona’s gene hunters to find the cause of autism, researchers will announce today.

The $2 million project is funded by the National Alliance for Autism Research in Princeton, N.J., and is a coup for the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute and Affymetrix Inc., a computer gene chip company in Santa Clara, Calif.

Both groups beat out five others, including an internationally known
genetics company in Iceland, for the first phase of the project.

The agreement calls for TGen and Affymetrix to receive $1 million to
scan 6,000 samples of DNA from 1,500 families. Each sample will contain
the genetic code from two children diagnosed with autism, a growing
developmental disability for which there is no cure or treatments, and
their parents. The remaining $1 million will go to more than 170 geneticists
around the world who will help analyze the results. In addition, the
Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center in Phoenix is giving an
additional $150,000 to the project.

The international effort is the largest ever undertaken to find a cause, and potentially treatments and a cure, for autism.

“This is the first real opportunity to get at the root of the disease,” said Dietrich Stephan, TGen’s director of neurogenomics division and the project’s senior investigator.

Researchers believe as many as 20 genes may be responsible for
autism, which is characterized by repetitive behaviors, difficulty communicating with others and an aversion to being touched.
It is not known how many people in the United States have autism,
although studies in Europe and Asia indicate that six in every 1,000
children have the disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. The National Alliance for Autism Research puts the
number as high as one in 166.

Stephan said he and a team of about a dozen TGen scientists expect
to scan the 6,000 DNA samples in as little as three months, although its
agreement with the alliance gives them six months. They will use DNA micro
array computer chips to scan the human genome for problem genes that may
be responsible for the disorder.

“This time frame is unheard of,” he said. “And it’s just because the
technology has speeded up the process by a hundredfold. A project like
this just last year would have taken years.”

Stephan likened the first phase of the project to trying to find a person by finding the ZIP code in which they live. The next phase, estimated at $20 million, and for which TGen and Affymetrix still must compete, will be pinpointing the actual address of the faulty genes. From there, it will be up to biotech companies and others to develop potential treatments.

TGen, a not-for-profit research institute, will make its findings
available to other researchers in the public domain. It does not plan to
file a patent based on its findings.

“This is an altruistic endeavor,” he said. “Someone needs to figure
out what causes autism, and I’d rather it be us because we can be sure
it’s done right.”

Andy Shih, director of research and programs at NAAR, said his group
chose TGen and Affymetrix because of their reputations and the
cutting-edge technology they bring to the project.

“Their practical expertise will help make this project a success,”
he said.

He added that the groups together have a better shot at finding the
genes “than all the other researchers working independently for the past
decade” have had.

The project was welcomed news to mothers of autistic children eager
to participate in any clinical trials that might arise from pinpointing genes
that cause the disorder.

“It opens the doors to possibly a cure or treatment,” said Apache
Junction resident JessieGeroux, whose 4-year-old son, Tyler was diagnosed
with autism last year.

Claudia Jensen, who lives in Maricopa, said she hopes the project
leads to a genetic test for her 2 1/2-year-old son, Justin.

“There’s a possibility of him marrying and having children, and I
would like for him to take that information forward.”

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