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Genome Canada boosts autism genetics research

The Offord Centre for Child Studies will reap benefits from a $6.9 million Genome Canada grant designed to help researchers locate the genes that cause autism spectrum disorders.  It’s the first Genome Canada grant ever awarded to a research group at McMaster University.

The grant is one of 33 awards totalling $167.2 million that were recently announced by Genome Canada, Canada’s primary funder of genomics and proteomics research.  It will be shared among Canada’s top autism genetics researchers, including Peter Szatmari and Lonnie Zwaigenbaum of the Offord Centre, who are involved in the Autism Genome Project, an unprecedented initiative that is part of a global research collaboration to characterize the human genome in search of autism susceptibility genes.

Dr. Szatmari is co-director of the project with Stephen Scherer at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.  More than 180 scientists from 11 countries are involved in the initiative, which has received more than $13.7 million from other sources, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the National Alliance for Autism Research and the National Institute of Health in the U.S.

Autism is a severe neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in social communication and by a preference for repetitive activities.  Recent studies indicate that as many as 1 in 165 Canadian children are afflicted.

Although it is generally agreed that a strong genetic basis underlies the condition, the causes of autism are still unknown.  The Autism Genome Project will screen genomes from more than 6,000 members of 1,600 families to find where susceptibility genes reside along the chromosomes.  Advanced genomic methods will then be used to assess the DNA in these chromosome regions in order to identify disease-associated genes.

 “This is welcome news and an important step toward ensuring stability in funding for this groundbreaking initiative,” said Dr. Szatmari.  “Canada has been a leader in this international collaboration and this new funding will allow us to maintain and enhance that leadership position.”

Because the project will also incorporate genetic information about autism into health care delivery and policy development, “there is real potential for it to lead to new and more accurate tests that will allow for earlier diagnosis and intervention.

He said it will also enable scientists to begin to think about some of the socio/ economic/ethical issues around genetic testing for autism and ensure that safeguards are in place to protect the interests of those affected by autism and their families.

Learn more about the Canadian genetics study

How solid is the evidence that genetics plays a role in autism?

Understanding autism – It’s mainly in the genes

Last updated: October 2005
© 2005