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Extramural Research

UMDNJ Children's Center Develops New Tests to Detect Autism, Patents Novel Lipid Treatment Options

(The Star-Ledger, Sunday, February 18, 2007)

A team of scientists at the UMDNJ Children’s Center has found possible ways to detect biological risk factors for autism through urine and blood tests, a discovery that could lead to groundbreaking medical treatments for the neurological disorder.

Most of the researchers on the team making this discovery are from the Children's Center at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ).  As presented in an article about the research published in The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), the researchers found that children with autism are unable to metabolize certain fatty acids that help the body fight inflammation, which can then cause damage to the brain and other organs. This finding is the result of more than two years of study on how the body breaks down fatty acids.

Team members say the potential treatment will be a kind of "therapeutic cocktail" tailored to each child, which would give them a dose of a "good" fatty acid that they are not able to make on their own. Team member and chemist Bernd Spur of UMDNJ-Stratford created the chemical process to replicate one of the good fatty acids. "The pathway doesn't work (in the body), so we circumvent it," said Spur.  He said that studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Vanderbilt University have confirmed the findings.

"It's an exciting story that's unfolding," said pediatric toxicologist and neonatologist George Lambert, Principal Investigator of the Center and coordinator of the research team. 

New Jersey has a high incidence of the disorder, affecting 1 in 94 children in the state, compared with 1 in 150 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and there is no known cause or cure.

In the future, a person's risk for autism could be measured with a simple urine test that would look for high levels of "bad" fat molecules, or a blood test that could reveal genetic problems, including the absence of a key gene, called GSTM1, which is responsible for metabolizing good fats. Many people with autism do not have this gene.  It may be that having less of these key fats reduces the body's ability to deal with environmental and metabolic stress.

So far, the scientists have obtained six patents for their research and are looking to produce and test the fatty acids in a research study.  The scientists are cautious, however, about their preliminary results, and warn families not to expect a miracle cure. Testing on humans, they say, could take a few years.

Meanwhile, the researchers are preparing a preliminary study with 5- to 7-year-olds to begin in September at the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center in New Brunswick, a school for children with autism run by Rutgers.  The children in the treatment group will receive doses of good fatty acids to see if they affect the children's cognitive, social and behavioral states.

The Star-Ledger: Jersey scientists find a possible key to autism

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Centers Funded by Epa and NIEHS

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