Feinstein Institute Researchers Awarded $3M Grant for Autism Research

MANHASSET, NYFeinstein Institute for Medical Research scientists Betty Diamond, MD, and Peter K. Gregersen, MD, were awarded a two-year, $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore the relationship between a mother’s autoimmunity during pregnancy and the risk of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in her child.

In previous Feinstein Institute studies, Drs. Diamond and Gregersen discovered that an antibody—an immune protein in the body that fights illness or infection—can lead to abnormal brain development and ASD symptoms. The new NIH-sponsored study will explore if women with autoimmune inflammatory disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disorder, have increased levels of antibodies and are therefore at an increased risk of having children with ASD.

“We are extremely grateful for the NIH’s support of this project, which will determine if there is a correlation between exposure to a specific antibody in utero and autism spectrum disorders,” said Dr. Diamond, co-lead investigator on the study and head of the Feinstein’s Center for Autoimmune, Musculoskeletal and Hematopoietic Diseases. “If we do discover this correlation, we have the potential in the future to block or remove antibodies that produce autism spectrum disorders in utero thereby preventing the child from living with the condition once born.”

Dr. Diamond and Dr. Gregersen’s study, entitled, “Prenatal Autoimmune and Inflammatory Risk Factors for Autism Spectrum Disorders,” will follow 4,500 pregnant women who deliver at Northwell Health hospitals and their offspring for two years. The mothers will be given a blood test during pregnancy to identify the presence of autoimmune disease(s), immune activation and increased cytokine levels. After birth, researchers will monitor their offspring, looking to see if they exhibit signs of ASD.

“Autism spectrum disorders are partly influenced by genetic factors, but relatively little attention has been paid to the role of environment, and particularly the intrauterine environment. Clearly, the increasing incidence of autism in recent decades cannot be ascribed to genetics, and we believe that autoimmunity and inflammation play a major role here,” said Dr. Gregersen, co-lead investigator of the study and head of the Feinstein’s Robert S. Boas Center for Genomics & Human Genetics. “If we can understand these relationships, it will have important practical applications in terms of preventing the development of autism spectrum disorders by reducing these intrauterine risk factors.”

About ASD

ASD is a group of developmental disorders in which people exhibit social challenges that include difficulty communicating and interacting with others, as well as repetitive behavior. These difficulties affect the person’s ability to function socially, at school or work, or other areas of life. ASD typically exhibits itself in the first two years of life. One in 68 children in the US has been identified with an ASD disorder.

About The Feinstein Institute

The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research is the research arm of Northwell Health, the largest healthcare provider in New York. Home to 50 research laboratories and to clinical research throughout dozens of hospitals and outpatient facilities, the 2,000 researchers and staff of the Feinstein are making breakthroughs in molecular medicine, genetics, oncology, brain research, mental health, autoimmunity, and bioelectronic medicine – a new field of science that has the potential to revolutionize medicine. For more information about how we empower imagination and pioneer discovery, visit FeinsteinInstitute.org.

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Heather E. Ball
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