Autism Consortium holds its fourth annual symposium to update on autism

The Autism Consortium, an innovative collaboration of researchers, clinicians, funders and families dedicated to catalyzing research and enhancing clinical care for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), held its fourth annual symposium on October 28th, 2009, at Harvard Medical School in Boston. The meeting gave scientists, clinicians, advocates and parents an opportunity to gather for the latest information on causes of autism and their implications for diagnosis, prognosis and therapies for people with autism spectrum disorders.

"We're proud to host this important meeting and facilitate what has become a unique and growing collaboration among scientists and families," said Peter Barrett, partner in the Life Sciences group at Atlas Venture and chair of the Autism Consortium's board of directors. "The symposium provides a forum for researchers working to find the next breakthroughs in autism to meet not only with each other to share their latest finding but also directly with practitioners who are treating children and their parents."

The symposium's scope and attendance doubled this year, with an increase in scientific posters presented from 19 in 2008 to 38 and attendance rising from 200 to 400 over last year.

"The dramatic growth of this year's symposium strengthens our resolve to bring researchers, clinicians and families together to move the needle on autism research as quickly as possible," said Deirdre Philips, executive director of the Autism Consortium. "The Autism Consortium encourages families to become vested partners in the research process, participating in studies whenever they can to provide the broadest possible foundation for new discoveries that will lead to new treatments."

Current Autism Issues Discussed

The symposium opened with a welcome from Barrett and Phillips. The morning session provided a snapshot of current autism issues:

  • Laurie Demmer, MD, MA, chief of the division of genetics and metabolism at The Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center gave an overview of the genetic changes that have been identified in children with autism. She also discussed a new study demonstrating the utility of clinical genetic testing in the diagnosis and treatment of children with ASDs.
  • Representative Barbara L'Italien (MA), vice chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, discussed new legislation that, if enacted, will mandate insurance coverage for diagnosis and treatment of ASDs.
  • Susan Wilczynski, PhD, BCBA, executive director of the National Autism Center, discussed a study evaluating the effectiveness of autism treatments based on research study results published in peer-reviewed journals.

Latest Autism Research Presented for Discussion

Throughout the day, 38 researchers presented posters on their ongoing research in autism, ranging from new advances in clinical care to data mining, RNA editing and genomic arrangements.

The afternoon session, lead by Mriganka Sur, PhD, Newton Professor of Neuroscience, Head, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, included presentations on several promising areas of autism research and panel discussions among the presenters.

Chromosome 16p11.2 and Autism

Autism Consortium research last year resulted in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showing strong and compelling evidence that a region on chromosome 16 appears to play an important role in susceptibility for autism spectrum disorders. Scanning genetic data from more than 3,000 individuals, researchers found that a deletion or duplication of a specific section of chromosome 16 (referred to as 16p11.2) accounts for approximately 1% of autism cases.

Since this discovery, researchers from eleven labs have begun an exciting collaboration on the investigation of this region of chromosome 16 and the role it plays in autism. Eight scientists working in this area presented an update on their latest findings:

  • Mark Daly, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Senior Associate Member of the Broad Institute, presented continued genetics analysis of the 25 genes in the 16p11.2 region.
  • Three investigators from Children's Hospital Boston presented their research on the human phenotypes associated with a deletion or duplication at 16p11.2.
    • David Miller, MD, PhD, Instructor, Department of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School Division of Genetics and Assistant Director, DNA Diagnostics Laboratory, Children's Hospital Boston
    • Ellen Hanson, PhD, Instructor, Department of Psychology, Harvard Medical School and Developmental Medical Center, Children's Hospital Boston
    • Magdi Sobeih, MD, PhD, Instructor, Department of Neurology, Harvard Medical School and Department of Neurology, Children's Hospital Boston
  • Three researchers presented work on understanding the role the 25 genes in the 16p11.2 region play in the mechanisms of neuronal development and brain formation in model organisms.
    • Mustafa Sahin, MD, PhD, Director, Multi-Disciplinary Tuberous Sclerosis Program and Department of Neurology, Children's Hospital Boston
    • Froylan Calderon de Anda, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Tsai Laboratory, MIT
    • Damon Page, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Sur Laboratory, MIT

Hazel Sive, PhD, Member, Whitehead Institute and Professor, Department of Biology, MIT, presented her work using the zebrafish as a tool to define the function of the genes contained in the 16p11.2 interval during early brain development.

    Family Resource Fair

    For the first time in 2009, the Symposium included a Family Resource Fair, a forum for support and advocacy organizations to provide information on their programs and services. The Resource Fair was especially well received by the many autism family members and caregivers in attendance.

    • Autism Consortium Autism Resource Specialists and Family Recruitment Network
    • Family Autism Center, South Norfolk County ARC
    • Autism Alliance of MetroWest
    • Autism Support Center
    • Spotlight Program, North Shore ARC
    • The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism
    • SPEDWatch
    • Mass Family TIES
    • E.K. Shriver Center, UMass Medical School
    • Asperger's Association of New England
    • Antioch University New England, Center for Autism Spectrum Disorder Training
    • TILL, Inc.
    • Urban PRIDE


    The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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