ASF Awards 2023 Fellowships to Six Early-Career Researchers
NEW YORK — April 20, 2023 — The Autism Science Foundation (ASF), a nonprofit organization supporting families facing autism, today announced the recipients of its annual pre- and post-doctoral fellowship grants and its first post-undergraduate 2-year research fellowship. Three pre-doctoral, two post-doctoral and 1 post-undergrad fellowship grants will be awarded to students for their novel project proposals, ranging from developing new brain-based treatment targets, developing gene therapies, and building a clinical trial pipeline for profound autism.
“This was a particularly impressive group of applicants and we are thrilled to support these early-career autism scientists who have novel and creative approaches to developing new autism treatments.” said Autism Science Foundation Chief Science Officer Dr. Alycia Halladay. “At ASF, we recognize the immense value in ensuring that we foster the next generation of researchers, whose passion and dedication will continue to propel the field forward and whose work is poised to tangibly improve the lives of people with autism.”
“This year we are funding our first two-year post-undergraduate research coordinator fellowship to bridge the gap between undergraduate and graduate school, said ASF President Alison Singer. “Thanks to our generous donors, we are now able to provide fellowship support for early investigators starting in college going through to post doctoral studies.”
Since its founding in 2009, the Autism Science Foundation has funded more than $5 million in grants that have resulted in breakthroughs that have made a demonstrably positive impact on the lives of people with autism.
The following early career projects were selected for spring 2023 funding:
Hyopil Kim, PhD
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Mentor: Justus Kebschull, PhD
Understanding the Structural Basis of Disrupted Functional Connectivity in ASD Using Barcoded Connectomics
Many lines of evidence have shown that brain regions do not communicate well in people with autism, leading to symptoms of ASD. This can include too much or too little connectivity between brain regions, causing decreased or misdirected connections. Applying a technology new to autism, individual neurons will be labeled with bar codes and then tracked to determine where and how brain cells connect. This novel approach will allow scientists to better understand the nature of connectivity problems in autism, and potentially provide clues to new druggable targets.
Stephen Tran, PhD
University of California at San Diego
Mentor: Jonathan Sebat, PhD
Developing a High Throughput Screening Platform for Gene Therapy and Drug Discovery in ASD
There has been a strong push to test new gene therapies in autism, including use of new antisense oligonnucleotide therapy, which targets working copies of genes to increase production of its associated protein. This highly innovative approach could remove a major bottleneck in the development of gene therapies for autism by developing a new way to test genetic therapy targets genome-wide.
Mentor: Judy S. Liu, MD, PhD
Building a Clinical Trial Pipeline for Profound Autism
Individuals with a mutation in ASH1L exhibit symptoms of profound autism, as well as several medical comorbidities. Building on this fellow’s expertise in pre-clinical models of ASH1L-related autism, the fellow will advance to a natural history study of human patients with this mutation, and their families. In addition, the fellow will collect EEG data from families and identify potential biomarkers of this gene mutation. These are critical steps that enable future drug development and seizure treatment. When the study is complete, the findings have potential to guide development of new drugs to treat symptoms of profound autism, including those with and without an ASH1L mutation.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Mentor: Clare Harrop, PhD
Identifying Speech Prosody Markers and Patterns in Females to Improve Diagnosis
Females are less likely to receive an autism diagnosis than males and several studies are examining the biological, psychological, and developmental reasons for this disparity. One theory is that language abilities and patterns in females are superior to males, possibly reflecting better social ability, which may contribute to lower diagnostic rates. This study will look at a measure of language called prosody, or the rhythm, tone and pattern used during spoken language. Studies around prosody in autistic females are lacking, mostly because there are fewer girls with an autism diagnosis who can participate in research on prosody. This fellow will examine prosody in males and females with and without autism, and compare prosody to assessments of social function and interest. These results will inform caregivers, educators, and clinicians when considering a possible autism diagnosis for girls.
Mentor: Zhiping Pang, MD,PhD
Interpreting the Impact of ASD Gene Mutations Using Pluripotent Stem Cells
The autism genome is comprised of genes that directly regulate protein expression and genes that indirectly regulate activity by turning on or off genes that affect protein expression. The latter genes are described as “epigenetic” and are influenced by both genetic mutations and environmental factors. What is not known is whether epigenetic mutations affect downstream processes related to autism like altering connections or function of brain cells. This project will use human induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, with a mutation of a gene called SETD1A that controls epigenetic gene regulation to examine the effects of mutations on gene expression in different types of cells. In addition, this fellow will examine how these mutations affect brain cell shape and functionality. Finally, they will investigate whether these effects are reversible, leading the way to new therapies that can help those with ASD.
Two-Year Post-Undergraduate Fellowship
University of California at Los Angeles
Mentor: Rujuta Wilson, MD
Determining the Long-Term Impacts of Infant Motor Impairments in Autism
There is a critical need to understand how motor impairments drive development and predict outcomes in autism. Using an infant siblings research design, infants from 6 months of age will be tracked for 2 years to determine how specific motor impairments lead to social deficits that accompany an autism diagnosis. This study will utilize both home video observation and data gathered from activity sensors worn by the infant to examine specific motor abilities that are linked to later social skills in toddlers. The results of this study may identify potential areas of early intervention to improve developmental outcomes and possibly ameliorate autism symptoms.
About the Autism Science Foundation
The Autism Science Foundation (ASF) is a 501(c) (3) public charity. Its mission is to support autism research by providing funding to scientists and organizations conducting autism research. ASF also provides information about autism to the general public and serves to increase awareness of autism spectrum disorders and the needs of individuals and families affected by autism. To learn more about the Autism Science Foundation or to make a donation, visit www.autismsciencefoundation.org.