Med School researchers win NIH grant to study autism in girls

Three researchers at the Yale School of Medicine learned last week that they will receive $15 million from the National Institute of Health (NIH) for autism research.

The researchers, all of whom are professors in the Child Study Center, found out on Sept. 4 that they had won the grant, called the “Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) program,” to research autism in females. The announcement was the culmination of an application process that began in the fall of 2011, and means that Yale will act as the primary institution in the five-year network grant, collaborating with researchers at Harvard, UCLA and the University of Washington.

“It was a very, very competitive process,” said James McPartland, a co-investigator on the team. “It’s an exciting kind of grant to write because it’s a network grant. We get to work with people here but also experts in different institutions.”

The research team said they believe their success stems from the strength of their partner institutions and their unique choice to investigate the incidence of autism in girls rather than boys. Lisa Gilotty, program officer for the National Institute for Mental Health — a subdivision of the NIH — called the proposal “unprecedented.”

“We have this long-standing knowledge … [autism] affects males much more predominantly than females, but we don’t know why,” she said. “Dr. [Kevin] Pelphrey’s grant will focus on the sex differences: understanding how and why there’s this difference. There’s really nothing else like it.”

Gilotty, who recently began working with the group, will remain with them in an administrative capacity for the duration of the grant, monitoring the project’s progress.

Pelphrey, the team’s principle investigator, said that he has a “personal stake” in the project because his daughter is autistic.

“I probably worked harder on this draft then anything else in my life,” he said.

McPartland said that Yale and its three partner institutions have an “existing rapport” as major autism research centers with matching expertise and compatible equipment. But researchers at these universities were also applying for the ACE program as primary institutions, said Pelphrey, resulting in “competition” and “collaborating.”

This inter-institutional collaboration will continue as the project moves forward, McPartland said, with each site running pre-defined experiments with consistent procedures. He added that the goal is to gain information about gene networks and autism in girls.

“The study is really going to come up with many insights … hopefully the causes of autism,” Gilotty said. “It’s pretty exciting.”

In total, Pelphrey said, between 200 and 300 teams applied for the grant, and nine ultimately won funding, including Harvard Medical School, University of California, Emory University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Autism Spectrum Disorders affect approximately 1 in 88 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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