GW professor finds genetic link to autism

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Better treatment options for autism may be on the horizon after a GW professor found a genetic link to the disorder earlier this month.

Using twin studies – where one sibling had been diagnosed with autism and the other had not – Dr. Valerie Hu, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and her research team have found over 100,000 genes that were expressed differently in those with autism.

Autism is a developmental disorder marked by a broad spectrum of social and communication deficits that typically manifests within the first few years of a child’s life. It is a personalized disease, Hu added, with “diverse symptoms and levels of functioning.”

Hu said her son, who is autistic, was the sole influence behind her research, which began five years ago.

“I was long overdue for sabbatical,” Hu said of when she started her research. “I took a period off where I could redirect and refocus my research towards autism.”

Unlike previous studies, Hu studied gene expression instead of taking a genetic approach. Gene expression relates to gene activity, Hu said, which points to the genes that are turned on or off and cause certain behaviors.

“With gene expression, we may be able to relate it to the manifestation of autism, when one twin has it severely and the other does not,” Hu said.

In the autistic samples, more genes were “turned off,” caused by a higher degree of DNA tagging, where chemical groups attach to bases in the DNA.

Hu said there is currently no treatment for autism except for behavior intervention therapy, adding that her research focused on identifying biological causes of the disease, could help design better theories of treatment.

“There are no tried and true pharmacological and medical interventions,” Hu said. “Hopefully this will create new methods in therapy.”

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