Simeon Bennett reports at Bloomberg:
Scientists have found a way to peer into the brains of people with autism: grow them in a dish.
Aided by stem cell technology that earned Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka the Nobel Prize in Medicine three years ago, companies including Novartis AG, Roche Holding AG and Johnson & Johnson are gaining new insights into the triggers of a social disorder that afflicts one in 68 people.
The technique known as induced pluripotency has spurred drugmakers to fund a quest for treatments, a sea change for a disease previously viewed as too elusive to tackle.
Thanks to Yamanaka, scientists can now harvest skin samples from the inner arms and legs of patients and grow them into small pieces of brain-like tissue, allowing them to study how genetic mutations affect brain behavior and gauge the response to drugs.
"The first mover in this space is really going to transform the company that gets it,” said Rob Ring, the former head of Pfizer Inc.’s now-disbanded autism research unit. “It’s worth the shot.
While drugmakers don’t disclose how much they devote to autism research, the U.S. National Institutes of Health is spending $190 million this year, a sum split between 480 different grants whose topics range from anxiety management to better ways of measuring treatment outcomes. Two decades ago, the amount the NIH allocated to autism research was $11 million, according to Ring, who is now chief science officer at New York-based Autism Speaks.