Seattle Children’s, UW help launch largest-ever autism research study in the U.S.

The Seattle Children’s Autism Center and the University of Washington are joining nearly 20 institutions across the country to compile data to accelerate autism research, speed discovery of treatments and advance the general understanding of the disorder in the largest-ever autism research study in the U.S.

“When we work to identify genes that cause autism, we need a huge number of individuals diagnosed with autism because each genetic event that leads to autism is rare,” Dr. Raphael Bernier, a researcher and clinical director of Seattle Children’s Autism Center, said in a statement. “This large registry allows us to identify genetic trends. Once we know which genes to focus on, we can look at more individualized treatments for the future.”

The new study, called SPARK, will collect genetic samples from about 50,000 families, which will help scientists get a deeper insight into the genetic changes that contribute to autism.
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Autism affects early brain development and typically appears within the first two or three years of life. It is estimated that autism affects one in every 68 children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Washington state is estimated to have 8,000 to 12,000 children diagnosed with some form of autism, according to the Department of Health.

Researchers know that certain genes are linked to autism — scientists have identified about 50 genes, and they estimate an additional 300 or more are also involved. Despite a long history of studying autism, researchers have not yet made much headway in identifying biological markers for early diagnosis or in determining which therapy might work best for an individual, Bernier said.

The study is sponsored by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative and 21 leading national research institutions are participating.

Families who are interested in the SPARK study can go to http://sparkforautism.org/uw.