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NIMH Awards Almost $8M in Stimulus Funds in FY'09 to Study Genetic Architecture of Autism by Deep Sequencing

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By Julia Karow

This article was originally published Oct. 2.

The National Institute of Mental Health has used stimulus funding to make five awards, totaling approximately $8 million in fiscal year 2009, for a two-year collaborative project that will study the genetic architecture of autism by deep genomic sequencing.

According to the grant abstracts, the project is "an unprecedented partnership" between two large-scale sequencing centers — at Baylor College of Medicine and at the Broad Institute — and a network of research labs focused on the genetics of autism, brought together by the Autism Genome Project and the Autism Consortium.

The partners plan to "reveal the genetic architecture of autism," first by sequencing 1,000 genes that have either previously been implicated in genetic studies of autism or have been postulated to be functionally relevant in the disease, and later, "as the technology continues to advance," by whole-genome sequencing.

The study's goal is to "conclusively identify which genes harbor individual or collections of rare DNA variants that predispose to autism, and thus translate the abstract heritability into solid biological clues to disease pathogenesis that can be studied molecularly and approached therapeutically," according to the abstract.

Follow-up studies will be performed on "thousands of autism families" collected by autism research groups and provided to NIMH repositories with phenotype data.

These efforts "will form the cornerstone of autism genetic research going forward."

The grants go to a team at Baylor College of Medicine, led by Richard Gibbs, which receives $2 million in fiscal '09; a group at the Broad Institute, led by Mark Daly, receiving $2.44 million; scientists at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, led by Joseph Buxbaum, receiving $0.57 million; a group at the University of Pennsylvania, led by Gerard Schellenberg, receiving $0.48 million; and a team at Vanderbilt University, led by James Sutcliffe, obtaining $2.48 million.

The funding amount for the entire project was not immediately available from NIMH.

The project is one of several large-scale sequencing efforts related to autism that will benefit from stimulus funding. Last week, Children's Hospital Boston announced that it, the Broad Institute, and Harvard Medical School have been awarded a $4.5 million Grand Opportunity grant from NIMH for a study that will sequence the exomes — and eventually the entire genomes — of 85 Middle Eastern patients with a recessive form of autism whose parents share a common ancestry. Two other awards went to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Yale University. (see related story in this issue).

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