Autism Speaks awards second class of Dennis Weatherstone pre-doctoral fellowships

September 30, 2010

NEW YORK, N.Y. (September 30, 2010) - Autism Speaks is pleased to announce the 2010 class of Dennis Weatherstone Pre-Doctoral Fellows. Made possible by a multi-year grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation named in honor of former J.P. Morgan CEO Sir Dennis Weatherstone, eight fellowship projects were selected for funding by Autism Speaks with awards totaling $448,000 over the next two years. The fellowship awards will provide highly qualified candidates with exceptional research training opportunities across various areas related to the study of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Established in 2008, the intent of the fellowship program is to encourage the most promising young scientists to establish autism research as their chosen career path. The fellowship awards will provide highly qualified predoctoral students with exceptional research training opportunities under the mentorship of distinguished scientists studying all aspects of ASD. The Dennis Weatherstone Fellowship program is designed to support the growth of a promising cadre of young autism scientists.

These eight fellows were selected out of 50 proposals from a highly qualified and enthusiastic field of candidates. Projects were selected for funding based on the strengths of the training plan, research strategy, mentor's qualifications and the relevance of the topic to Autism Speaks' research priority areas. The topics are described below.

"We are extremely pleased to welcome this second class of fellows who represent a diverse group of highly qualified researchers whose work spans genetics, neuroscience and clinical research," says Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., chief science officer for Autism Speaks. "As stewards of this generous gift to Autism Speaks, we believe the Weatherstone Fellows program not only jumpstarts careers of promising scientists, but leverages our investment by creating collaborations with both the leading autism researchers of today and within the community of these Weatherstone fellows. As the largest science and advocacy organization, we have found that collaboration is key to the most significant research advances in the study of autism."

Several of the proposed training projects focus on mouse models. Ryan Ash, under mentors Stelios Smirnakis and Huda Zoghbi at Baylor College of Medicine will investigate imaging neuronal structure and function in a reversible mouse mode for autism. Jessica Hauser at Harvard University will work under mentor Bernardo Sabatini to study perturbations of synaptic plasticity and intrinsic excitability to aid in the discovery of a common synaptic phenotype among ASDs and facilitate generation of effective therapies for individuals suffering from autism. Mehreen Kouser will work with mentor Craig Powell at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas to establish how shank3 mutation affects autism-relevant behaviors.

Other 2010 felllows are investigating individuals throughout the full age range of ASD from children through adolesence and adulthood. At the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Joshua Haworth will work with mentors Nick Stergiou and Wayne Fisher to evaluate response of children with ASD to an oscillating point of light, studying deficits in the perception and production of motion, setting the stage for future investigations of very early identification of risk for autism, as well as the establishment of early diagnosis criteria.

Petya Radoeva at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University will use non-invasive neuroimaging to study older youth with 22.a11.2 deletion syndrome as she evaluates their social cognition abilities such as their ability to infer what another person thinks in certain situations under the mentorship of Wendy Kates. At the adult end of the ASD spectrum, Vanessa Hus Bal will work with mentor Catherine Lord at the University of Michigan to develop and refine diagnostic instruments for use with adults with ASD.

The critical role parents can play in advancing their children's skills is evident in Stephanie Patterson work at the University of California, Los Angeles under mentor Connie Kasari, as she develops a novel parent-directed intervention to enhance language development in nonverbal children with ASD.

Lastly, Esther Berko will work with mentor John Greally at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University to conduct a topical human genetic study. Performing comprehensive analysis on the genomes of children with ASD born to parents of advanced age Berko will evaluate the role of age-related genetic variations, specifically aneuploidy (or abnormal numbers of chromosomes) and uniparental disomy (where both chromosome copies come from one parent), in the risk for ASD
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Find more by reading the complete 2010 Weatherstone Fellowship abstracts online at www.autismspeaks.org/science/research/grants/weatherstone_abstracts_2010.php

About Autism

Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that inhibits a person's ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and is often accompanied by behavioral challenges. Autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed in one in 110 children in the United States, affecting four times as many boys as girls. The prevalence of autism increased 57 percent from 2002 to 2006. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called autism a national public health crisis whose cause and cure remain unknown.

About Autism Speaks

Autism Speaks is North America's largest autism science and advocacy organization. Since its inception in 2005, Autism Speaks has made enormous strides, committing over $142.5 million to research through 2014 and developing innovative new resources for families. The organization is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. In addition to funding research, Autism Speaks also supports the Autism Treatment Network, Autism Genetic Resource Exchange and several other scientific and clinical programs. Notable awareness initiatives include the establishment of the annual United Nations-sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day on April 2 and an award-winning "Learn the Signs" campaign with the Ad Council which has received over $249 million in donated media. Autism Speaks' family resources include the Autism Video Glossary, a 100 Day Kit for newly-diagnosed families, a School Community Tool Kit and a community grant program. Autism Speaks has played a critical role in securing federal legislation to advance the government's response to autism, and has successfully advocated for insurance reform to cover behavioral treatments. Each year Walk Now for Autism Speaks events are held in more than 80 cities across North America. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit www.autismspeaks.org.

About the Co-Founders

Autism Speaks was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Bob Wright is Senior Advisor at Lee Equity Partners, Chairman and CEO of the Palm Beach Civic Association and served as vice chairman, General Electric, and chief executive officer of NBC and NBC Universal for more than twenty years. He also serves on the boards of the Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation, RAND Corporation and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. Suzanne Wright has an extensive history of active involvement in community and philanthropic endeavors, mostly directed toward helping children. She serves on the boards of several non-profit organizations and is also Trustee Emeritus of Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater. Suzanne has received numerous awards such as the CHILD Magazine Children's Champions Award, Luella Bennack Volunteer Award, Spirit of Achievement award by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's National Women's Division and the Weizmann Institute of Science. In 2008, the Wrights were named to the Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world for their commitment to global autism advocacy.

About Stavros Niarchos Foundation

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is a major international philanthropic organization established by the family of the late Stavros Niarchos. Mr. Niarchos, born and raised in Greece, was best known for his successful ship building and shipping enterprises, although he was active in a wide range of business activities. For years he was known to have the largest private fleet in the world, with more than eighty super tankers. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, founded in 1996, supports charitable activities in four primary areas: arts and culture; education; health and medicine; and social welfare. Special attention is given to programs for children and the elderly. Since its inception, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation has provided total grant commitments of $1,165,000,000 through more than 1,800 grants to not-for-profit organizations in 90 nations around the world. To learn more about the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, please visit www.snf.org

Autism Speaks

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