Logo: University of Southern California

NIH Funds $8M Autism Center at USC

Biomedical, environmental engineers play key roles in ambitious effort to study the disability

October 12, 2007 — A multi-institution team led by USC faculty has received a five-year, $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for an ambitious effort to survey the genetic, physical and behavioral profiles of children with autism.

The grant vastly will increase the reach and ethnic diversity of the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE), the world’s largest resource for autism research overseen by Clara Lajonchere, research assistant professor in biomedical engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, who has a joint appointment at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
Biomedical engineering professor Clara Lajonchere, who has a joint appointment at USC, will oversee the research.

Lajonchere, who serves as vice president of clinical programs for Autism Speaks, said: “This reaffirms the NIH’s commitment to supporting the AGRE resource, the largest repository of clinical and genetic information for families with two or more kids with autism. AGRE represents a paradigm shift towards large-scale collaboration and data sharing in the research community.”

Autism strikes one in every 150 children and costs the nation $90 billion annually, Lajonchere said, with the financial burden expected to double within 10 years.

Since its founding by Cure Autism Now in 1997, AGRE has grown under Lajonchere’s leadership to include data from more than 1,500 families with multiple cases of autism. AGRE became part of Autism Speaks when that organization merged with Cure Autism Now in February.

The NIH money will double the number of families and expand the data beyond genetic and clinical profiles to include what the researchers call phenomics: the systematic study of the outward physical and behavioral marks of autism.

Organized under a new Center for Genomic and Phenomic Studies in Autism, the research will involve scientists at USC, AGRE, the MIND Institute at the University of California at Davis, Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Lajonchere credited Steven Moldin, executive director of USC’s Washington, D.C. Office of Research Advancement and co-director of the new center, for helping “to create a presence for autism and autism research at USC.”

Earlier this year, Moldin organized a three-day meeting at USC of the country’s leading autism researchers to discuss the shared neurobiological roots of autism and other developmental disorders.

“Autism is such a complicated disorder, that you need to bring dozens of different research paradigms to understand it. In that way, it’s the ultimate multidisciplinary disease,” said Moldin, who is also research professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School.

“If I had to think of one disease that could unite researchers from the most fields at USC, it would definitely be autism.”

Randolph Hall, vice provost for research advancement, said, “This grant further demonstrates how USC is expanding its portfolio of research that directly addresses critical societal issues.”

One goal of the new center, said Thomas Lehner, chief of the NIH Genomics Research Branch, is to better distinguish among the many forms of autism and to explore the differences in their genetic profiles.
Constantinos Sioutas, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, sets up a specially designed air pollution monitor near a Los Angeles freeway, which he uses to study the chemical composition of ultrafine particulate matter. Sioutas will study environmental pollution and its possible role in autism.

“We are trying to establish a correspondence between gene and phenotype, with the phenotype being autism and its many manifestations,” Lehner said. “A unique feature of this grant is the extensiveness of phenotyping. This is one of our largest projects, if not the largest.”

Autism is an umbrella term that includes several phenotypes, Lehner said, some of which are poorly understood. A better picture of the phenotypes of autism could provide a basis for future drug trials and give clinicians better methods for measuring a patient’s response to treatment, he added.

AGRE’s expansion will focus on recruiting an ethnically diverse group of families, since Caucasians have been over-represented in genetic studies to the point that diagnostic tools are unreliable for minorities, Lajonchere said.

“There are few focused genetic studies that directly examine minority populations,” she said. The center’s expansion will complement efforts by Lajonchere and colleagues at Autism Speaks to foster similar studies in other countries.

Another unique aspect of the grant is a program of pilot studies to evaluate potential environmental factors in autism such as air pollution or disease and diet during pregnancy.

In one such study, Constantinos Sioutas, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, will chart exposure to air pollution in more than 600 California children with autism.

“Part of this study is aimed at determining whether chemical species in airborne ultrafine particles are associated with the incidence of autism in children,” said Sioutas, who is the Fred Champion Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at USC and co-director of the Southern California Particle Center and Supersite (SCPCS).

“We’re hoping to really fast-track some findings and the understanding of the causes and environmental factors that could possibly be implicated in autism,” Lajonchere said.

David Amaral of the MIND Institute also will serve as co-director of the new center.

The NIH grant is the second in a month awarded to USC for the study of minority health issues. In late September, USC received a $7.5 million grant to launch a Comprehensive Center of Excellence in Minority Health in an effort to stem the rise of childhood obesity and related health risks. It was USC’s first major grant from the NIH’s National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

--Carl Marziali