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This page was published on 07/03/2007
Published: 07/03/2007

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Europeans play key role in autism research

Autism and its genetic basis have long been of interest to researchers the world over. The latest universal effort made in the quest to better identify and understand autism susceptibility genes, involves research conducted by a team of more than 120 scientists from over 50 institutions representing 19 countries. European scientists have succeeded in playing a major role in providing new insights into the genetic basis of autism. The preliminary results of this research have been published in the latest issue of Nature Genetics.

MRIs are used to asses autism in patients.

Scientists from The University of Manchester, the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College, London and the University of Oxford were part of the team that collected and scanned the genomes of families with multiple cases of autism. Launched in 2002, the project members exchanged knowledge, data and samples to facilitate the identification of autism susceptibility genes. The brainchild of this collaboration was the Autism Genome Project (AGP).

The scientists sampled 1 200 families using ‘gene chip' technology to uncover genetic similarities in autistic people. The AGP scanned DNA from the families for copy number variations (CNV) or submicroscopic genomic insertion and deletions that scientists consider may affect autism and other developmental disorders.

The research team found a previously unidentified region of chromosome 11 and neurexin 1 (a member of a family of genes that allegedly play a key role in the contact and communication of neurons). During the first phase of the project, the largest autism DNA collection ever was gathered and scanned. The NGO Autism Speaks financially backed the first phase of the project.

Bob Wright, co-founder and Chairman of the Board, Autism Speaks, said: “The identification of susceptibility genes will provide profound new insight into the basis of autism offering a route to breakthroughs in new treatments in support of families.”

The scientists are now getting phase 2 off the ground. This phase will be developed on the success of the linkage scan. A consortium that includes Autism Speaks, the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), the Irish Health Research Board (HRB), and Genome Canada is shelling out more than €11 million from now until 2010 as investment for this project.

The University of Manchester's Jonathan Green, who led the clinical fieldwork in Manchester, said: “Autism is a very difficult condition for families – communication is taken for granted by parents of healthy children, but is so greatly missed by those with autistic children.” Professor Green noted the Manchester team is currently working to investigate the basic science and develop and test new treatments for the condition. “We hope that these exciting results may represent a step on the way to further new treatments in the future,” he explained.

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Nature Genetics
What is autism?

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