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NIH Awards $13M to UCSD-led Consortium for Autism Stem Cell Assays

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – The National Institutes of Health has awarded a five-year, $13 million grant to a public-private research consortium to develop and disseminate stem cell-based technologies and assays to study autism spectrum disorder and other mental health diseases.

Gene Yeo, an associate professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, and a founding member of the Institute for Genomic Medicine, is principal investigator on the project.

Other collaborators include Alysson Muotri and Larry Goldstein, both of the UCSD School of Medicine; Shelley Halpain of UCSD's biology department; and Edward Callaway of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Goldstein is also director of both the UCSD Stem Cell Program and Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center, with which four of the five academic researchers are affiliated.

Human induced pluripotent stem cells generated from patient tissue provide a promising cellular resource for understanding genetic and cellular variation in ASD and related disorders because they harbor individual genomic patterns of variation that contribute to or cause these disorders, the consortium noted in a statement.

However, these cells often generate variable findings due to additional differences in the genomic makeup of patient cells. The San Diego researchers hope to overcome these limitations by first introducing disease-relevant genomic variations into a single genomic background, then replicating these technologies across different labs before they are considered robust enough for public distribution.

"The idea is to build computational and molecular tools and cellular resources that are open source, accessible, give reproducible results, and are fundamentally useful to stem cell scientists," Yeo said in a statement.

Private partners in the consortium include Fluidigm and Becton Dickinson's BD Biosciences unit.

"Single-cell methods are key to creation of standardized stem cell-based tools to meet critical mental health needs," Robert Jones, chief technology officer for genomics at Fluidigm, said in a statement. Jones also noted that the Yeo lab was one of the first test sites for Fluidigm's C1 single-cell autoprep system, which led to the establishment of a single-cell core facility at the Sanford center.