Kaiser Permanente is about to begin what is believed to be the largest genetic research project ever conducted by a health organization into the causes of autism, gathering biological and other health information from 5,000 Northern California families who have a child with the developmental disorder.
Scientists have long suspected that autism results from a combination of genetics and environmental factors, but no one knows for sure. They hope a study of this size will reveal the root causes that could eventually lead to improved diagnoses and new treatments.
“This is an opportunity for the families who are affected by autism to really contribute their expertise and experience and help find answers,” said Lisa Croen, director of the autism program at Kaiser’s Division of Research in Oakland and the study’s principal investigator. “It’s definitely a huge scientific contribution in enhancing our understanding of autism, what causes it, how to treat it in the future and possibly even prevent it.”
Researchers hope the Kaiser study will help them understand what’s behind the acceleration in autism cases. They will begin recruiting families in July.
“There have been a lot of genetic studies done, and the one thing we know for sure is it’s very complex,” said Neil Risch, study co-investigator and the director of UCSF’s Institute for Human Genetics. “It’s not likely there are just one or two 'smoking gun’ genes contributing to it.”
The study, called the Autism Family Research Bank, was funded by a $4.6 million grant from Simons Foundation, a charity that supports a variety of health and social welfare initiatives. The grant will fund the recruiting of families and the collecting of detailed genetic, medical and environmental information, all of which is expected to take three years.