Autism experts from children's hospitals across the country will join other leading health care institutions to participate in the largest autism study ever conducted in the United States. The study's efforts include collecting information and DNA from 50,000 people, ages 3 to 100, with the neurodevelopmental disorder.
Sponsored by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), the study is called SPARK (Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge) and involves 21 research institutions, each recruiting participants and collecting data.
"Autism has a strong genetic component, but there's a lot of heterogeneity in the genes involved," says Karen Pierce, Ph.D., associate professor of neurosciences, co-director of the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence at the School of Medicine and a SPARK researcher. "More than 50 genes have been identified that almost certainly play a role in autism, but there may be 300 or more."
Experts say one of the major challenges in autism genetics research is sample size. Individual projects may fail to find genetic abnormalities, not because they aren't there, but because the sample size is too small. SPARK addresses that by pulling together information and data from not just 50,000 persons with autism, but also family members, such as parents.
With an abundance of material to study and share, researchers will be able to look more effectively for relevant biological mechanisms and how genetic and environmental factors interact to result in autism spectrum disorder.
SPARK data are expected to fuel numerous studies targeting key questions about the genetics and biology of autism, according to organizers. Participants will have input in determining the research agenda and can join studies offered through SPARK, which SFARI fully funds.
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