• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 26th April, 2007

Autism research advances but cure still far away

The discovery that a particular gene is associated with the development of autism is likely to raise hopes that genetic research is opening the door on to a garden of new treatments for the most problematic of disorders, but the implications are rather more complicated.Evidence of a strong genetic basis to autism has been in circulation for many years. When the Human Genome project began in 1989, a chromosome was identified as a likely contributor. Since then a study across 19 countries of 1,200 families with multiple cases of autism — the Autism Genome project — has narrowed the search further. Investigators are focusing on one region of Chromosome 11 and a specific gene that help nerve cells communicate (Neurexin1).So far so good: but the latest breakthrough teaches other lessons. First, genetic research of this type is expensive, long-term, multi-disciplinary, and multi-national. Since 2002, the study in question has involved 120 scientists working in 50 centres across 19 countries. The results reported here are merely interim. The next phase alone will cost the international collaboration of funders $13.5m. Secondly, although genes are important, knowing more about them does not by itself uncover any key to well-beingUndeniably, autism has a strong genetically driven component. But most disorders do not, and to a degree all impairments to health and development represent an interaction between genes and environment.Furthermore, even if all childhood disorders had a significant genetic component, progress towards conquering them would still be slow. Several genes are likely to be implicated in the development of autism and similar disorders. The prospect of a genetic test to predict autism in children is consequently remote. So, while the research should help pharmaceutical companies to develop and target drug treatments, the results do not represent or even suggest the beginning of a cure.

Back to Archives