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Autism Studies Reap $57M in New Stimulus Grants

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Autism research will get a surge of financial support from the stimulus package passed last month in Washington, with nearly $60 million already marked for four grant programs that include spending on a variety of genomics studies and the development of diagnostic screening tools.

Led by the National Institute of Mental Health, the "Research to Address the Heterogeneity in Autism Spectrum Disorders" will fund a range of research topics over the two years researchers have to spend the stimulus money.

NIH said in the funding announcement that while the $57 million in these four grants marks "the largest funding opportunity on autism spectrum disorders to date," some of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's $10 billion of support for NIH will go to autism studies through the NIH Challenge Grants in Science initiative and through other programs.

These grants were drafted to correspond with short-term research objectives that were proposed recently by the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee in a strategic plan.

"The Recovery Act comes at an opportune time for autism research," explained Thomas Insel, who is director of NIMH and chair of the IACC.

"As reflected in the IACC strategic plan, we have a growing sense of urgency to help the increasing number of children being diagnosed with ASD," he said in a statement. "With the arrival of new funds, we can immediately start on many of the short-term objectives in the plan and use Recovery Act funds to support science that will facilitate the best possible outcomes for people with ASD and their families," Insel added.

As with other ARRA programs, these grants must be spent within two years, and while that is not enough time to complete a number of trials, these funds "will be important for jumpstarting projects and building the infrastructure or foundation for longer-term autism research efforts," NIH said.

The $57 million will fund between 40 and 50 grants that support various types of autism research, including studies of genomics and genetics, environmental risk factors, biomarkers and biological signatures, and immune and central nervous systems interactions.

The genomics studies will entail a wide variety of genetic and genomic efforts through collaborative research project grants and exploratory or developmental research grants.

These research programs could include methylation-based genetic pathway analysis; genome-wide studies of epigenomics and genomic variation to identify pathogens and risk-conferring molecular elements; deep sequencing of candidate genomic regions to unravel genetic architecture of ASD and related phenotypes; and examination of candidate genes and environmentally relevant genes that could confer risk for development of ASD, among a number of other areas.

NIH also will seek to fund studies that will develop diagnostic tools that could be used in large-scale investigations, to validate diagnostic tools for use in diverse populations, and to improve the sensitivity and specificity of screening instruments used in community settings, among others.

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