Researchers ramp up new UNC Autism Research Center

With seed money from the Kenan Charitable Trust, the new center takes aim at the greatest challenges facing the field of autism spectrum disorder.

UNC-Chapel Hill has long been one of the world’s premier autism research universities, and now its expertise and leading research programs will fall under one virtual roof at the UNC Autism Research Center.

The goal of the new center is to accelerate the creation of more effective, personalized treatments and interventions for the millions of people with autism spectrum disorder across the lifespan.

To fund the start of the center, including the hiring of a program manager, the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust has committed $100,000 in the center’s first year, and a matching gift in the second year contingent on the center raising $200,000.

While the center will be housed within the Carolina Institute for Development Disabilities (CIDD) at the UNC School of Medicine, its researchers will span the University, working across all areas of autism research – genetics, development, biomedical and cognitive.

More than 100 faculty, students and postdoctoral researchers from 32 departments within five schools currently work on autism-related grants at Carolina.

“From cells to service, Carolina has been a leader in autism for a long time,” said Dr. Joseph Piven, co-chair of the center’s executive committee and director of the CIDD. “Now we have the opportunity to collaborate like never before, to devise and fund research projects with an unprecedented breadth of expertise to further the autism field and help people here in North Carolina and around the world.”

One in 68 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which is characterized by a wide range of challenges related to communication, social skills and repetitive behaviors. North Carolina’s autism rate is above the national average with about 65,000 people diagnosed with the condition, which is more common in boys.

“This new center gives us the opportunity to work with basic scientists and clinical researchers on a much deeper level to pursue more targeted and effective interventions,” said Laura Klinger, director of the UNC TEACCH Autism Program. “Collaborative research will help us understand which interventions work for which individual with autism at which point in their lifespan. Already, we use what our researchers discover to help people with autism, families, and teachers. The center will expedite this.”

Sam Odom, co-chair of the center’s executive committee and director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, said, “The research center holds great promise for building on our knowledge about biological causes of autism, the range of characteristics of individuals with autism, behavioral interventions to address development and learning needs, and the most effective interventions matched to the needs of individuals with autism.”

One path toward targeted treatments runs through the study of genetics. It could be that different autism symptoms are linked to different genetic subtypes. If so, then addressing underlying genetics might benefit people with autism. For this, basic scientists, clinical researchers, health care professionals and families must work together to figure out the best ways forward.

Mark Zylka, director of the UNC Neuroscience Center, said the multiple units on campus conducting autism research have historically done their own work, quite successfully.

This year, Piven’s group at CIDD published a wave of scientific papers showing it is possible to predict which high-familial risk infants will develop autism as toddlers. Piven is also one of few researchers in the country studying autism in older people. Odom and Klinger’s labs are developing behavioral intervention programs for adolescents and young adults focused on improved quality of life in adulthood.

Zylka’s lab and colleague Ben Philpot’s have conducted experiments showing how different chemicals, including fungicides, can affect genes linked to autism. Epidemiologist Julie Daniels of the Gillings School of Global Public Health created a method to study early life exposure to flame retardants and pollutants. Daniels is the director of the North Carolina sites of the Study to Explore Early Development (SEED), the largest epidemiological study in the world designed to compare children with autism and other developmental delays with people who do not have such delays.

Research projects that cross traditional research boundaries don’t typically get NIH funding. Zylka said the center will help researchers attract funding for innovative project, foster new collaborations and ultimately help people with autism and their families.

The collaborative approach also will help Carolina faculty train the next generation of autism researchers, especially postdoctoral fellows, to think broadly about their research and include people outside their immediate areas of expertise. The center plans to fund interdisciplinary postdoctoral fellowships, as well.