Rutgers geneticist to battle autism with $3.7 million NIH grant

October 15, 2003

NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY, N.J. - Linda Brzustowicz, an associate professor in Rutgers' department of genetics, has been awarded a five-year, $3.7 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to investigate the genetic basis of autism. The disorder, which has no known cure, is tied to a child's early brain development and is usually diagnosed in the first three years of life. The grant was made available through NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Rep. Chris Smith (R-4) provided encouragement and support in Brzustowicz' pursuit of the funds for this research. "This significant infusion of federal resources will help Dr. Brzustowicz and her team expand the research they have been doing to help identify the cause of autism," said Smith, who co-founded and co-chairs the Congressional Autism Caucus. "It complements millions in federal dollars that we have secured for autism research in our state and will, I hope, help us better understand, treat and ultimately prevent and cure autism."

"With this new federal funding, Linda Brzustowicz will lead the charge in our battle with a disorder that tragically affects so many individuals and their families," said Philip Furmanski, executive vice president for academic affairs at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. "We hope that this research, and the new knowledge it provides, will pave the way to new therapies for this terrible affliction."

Autistic children typically have difficulties with behavior, social interaction and communications skills, but there is a wide spectrum of symptoms and characteristics, expressed in combinations from extremely mild to quite severe. Researchers generally agree that multiple genes interact with each other to produce this range. An assortment of environmental factors is thought to be operating as well, conspiring with autism's genetics to produce the disorder in its many forms.

According to the American Medical Association, autism today is about 10 times more prevalent than it was in the 1980s. In New Jersey, the Department of Education reported 1,042 autistic children in 1994, a statistic that jumped to 3,984 by 2001.

A group of 150 New Jersey families will be selected for study by Brzustowicz and her colleagues at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). They are specifically looking for families that have an autistic member and other nonautistic relatives who exhibit traits associated with the illness such as problems with language.

"Our strategy is to examine the hereditary patterns of the individual characteristics that make up the spectrum of behaviors that constitute this disorder," said Brzustowicz, who is also a board certified psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry at UMDNJ. "In doing so, we hope to be able to more easily find the genes that are linked to specific components, one at a time."

Brzustowicz and her colleagues will also obtain 850 sets of previously collected and stored "trio" samples, consisting of specimens of genetic material from autistic individuals and their parents. This genetic material will be analyzed and compared - a child's to each of the two parents' - to more precisely define genes linked to autism.

The trios will be drawn from the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) and the NIMH Human Genetics Initiative samples, both of which are contained in the Rutgers University Cell and DNA Repository, a storehouse of cell lines cultured from blood samples donated by more than 40,000 people around the world. Trios will also be drawn from the Coriell Autism Resource.
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People interested in more information about the study can send an email to autism@biology.rutgers.edu.

Rutgers University

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