Can Genetic Testing Help Shed Light on the Autism Epidemic?
Autism cases are still on the rise, and scientists don't know why. In April, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that rates of autism had increased once again, now at an estimated 1 in 59 children up from 1 in 68 just two years ago. Rates have been climbing steadily since 2007 when the CDC initially estimated that 1 in 150 children were on the autism spectrum.
Some clinicians are concerned that the creeping expansion of autism is causing the diagnosis to lose its meaning.
The standard explanation for this increase has been the expansion of the definition of autism to include milder forms like Asperger's, as well as a heightened awareness of the condition that has improved screening efforts. For example, the most recent jump is attributed to children in minority communities being diagnosed who might have previously gone under the radar. In addition, more federally funded resources are available to children with autism than other types of developmental disorders, which may prompt families or physicians to push harder for a diagnosis.
Some clinicians are concerned that the creeping expansion of autism is causing the diagnosis to lose its meaning. William Graf, a pediatric neurologist at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, says that when a nurse tells him that a new patient has a history of autism, the term is no longer a useful description. "Even though I know this topic extremely well, I cannot picture the child anymore," he says. "Use the words mild, moderate, or severe. Just give me a couple more clues, because when you say autism today, I have no idea what people are talking about anymore."
Genetic testing has emerged as one potential way to remedy the overly broad label by narrowing down a heterogeneous diagnosis to a specific genetic disorder. According to Suma Shankar, a medical geneticist at the University of California, Davis, up to 60 percent of autism cases could be attributed to underlying genetic causes. Common examples include Fragile X Syndrome or Rett Syndrome—neurodevelopmental disorders that are caused by mutations in individual genes and are behaviorally classified as autism.
With more than 500 different mutations associated with autism, very few additional diagnoses provide meaningful information.
Having a genetic diagnosis in addition to an autism diagnosis can help families in several ways, says Shankar. Knowing the genetic origin can alert families to other potential health problems that are linked to the mutation, such as heart defects or problems with the immune system. It may also help clinicians provide more targeted behavioral therapies and could one day lead to the development of drug treatments for underlying neurochemical abnormalities. "It will pave the way to begin to tease out treatments," Shankar says.
When a doctor diagnoses a child as having a specific genetic condition, the label of autism is still kept because it is more well-known and gives the child access to more state-funded resources. Children can thus be diagnosed with multiple conditions: autism spectrum disorder and their specific gene mutation. However, with more than 500 different mutations associated with autism, very few additional diagnoses provide meaningful information. What's more, the presence or absence of a mutation doesn't necessarily indicate whether the child is on the mild or severe end of the autism spectrum.
Because of this, Graf doubts that genetic classifications are really that useful. He tells the story of a boy with epilepsy and severe intellectual disabilities who was diagnosed with autism as a young child. Years later, Graf ordered genetic testing for the boy and discovered that he had a mutation in the gene SYNGAP1. However, this knowledge didn't change the boy's autism status. "That diagnosis [SYNGAP1] turns out to be very specific for him, but it will never be a household name. Biologically it's good to know, and now it's all over his chart. But on a societal level he still needs this catch-all label [of autism]," Graf says.
"It gives some information, but to what degree does that change treatment or prognosis?"
Jennifer Singh, a sociologist at Georgia Tech who wrote the book Multiple Autisms: Spectrums of Advocacy and Genomic Science, agrees. "I don't know that the knowledge gained from just having a gene that's linked to autism," is that beneficial, she says. "It gives some information, but to what degree does that change treatment or prognosis? Because at the end of the day you have to address the issues that are at hand, whatever they might be."
As more children are diagnosed with autism, knowledge of the underlying genetic mutation causing the condition could help families better understand the diagnosis and anticipate their child's developmental trajectory. However, for the vast majority, an additional label provides little clarity or consolation.
Instead of spending money on genetic screens, Singh thinks the resources would be better used on additional services for people who don't have access to behavioral, speech, or occupational therapy. "Things that are really going to matter for this child in their future," she says.
In recent years, researchers of Alzheimer’s have made progress in figuring out the complex factors that lead to the disease. Yet, the root cause, or causes, of Alzheimer’s are still pretty much a mystery.
In fact, many people get Alzheimer’s even though they lack the gene mutation we know can play a role in the disease. This is a critical knowledge gap for research to address because the vast majority of Alzheimer’s patients don’t have this mutation.
A new study provides key insights into what’s causing the disease. The research, published in Nature Communications, points to a breakdown over time in the brain’s system for clearing waste, an issue that seems to happen in some people as they get older.
Michael Glickman, a biologist at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, helped lead this research. I asked him to tell me about his approach to studying how this breakdown occurs in the brain, and how he tested a treatment that has potential to fix the problem at its earliest stages.
Dr. Michael Glickman is internationally renowned for his research on the ubiquitin-proteasome system (UPS), the brain's system for clearing the waste that is involved in diseases such as Huntington's, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. He is the head of the Lab for Protein Characterization in the Faculty of Biology at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. In the lab, Michael and his team focus on protein recycling and the ubiquitin-proteasome system, which protects against serious diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, and diabetes. After earning his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley in 1994, Michael joined the Technion as a Senior Lecturer in 1998 and has served as a full professor since 2009.
Dr. Michael Glickman
When Drew Weissman received a call from Katalin Karikó in the early morning hours this past Monday, he assumed his longtime research partner was calling to share a nascent, nagging idea. Weissman, a professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Karikó, a professor at Szeged University and an adjunct professor at UPenn, both struggle with sleep disturbances. Thus, middle-of-the-night discourses between the two, often over email, has been a staple of their friendship. But this time, Karikó had something more pressing and exciting to share: They had won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The work for which they garnered the illustrious award and its accompanying $1,000,000 cash windfall was completed about two decades ago, wrought through long hours in the lab over many arduous years. But humanity collectively benefited from its life-saving outcome three years ago, when both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA vaccines against COVID were found to be safe and highly effective at preventing severe disease. Billions of doses have since been given out to protect humans from the upstart viral scourge.
“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” said Katalin Karikó. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”
Unlocking the power of mRNA
Weissman and Karikó unlocked mRNA vaccines for the world back in the early 2000s when they made a key breakthrough. Messenger RNA molecules are essentially instructions for cells’ ribosomes to make specific proteins, so in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers started wondering if sneaking mRNA into the body could trigger cells to manufacture antibodies, enzymes, or growth agents for protecting against infection, treating disease, or repairing tissues. But there was a big problem: injecting this synthetic mRNA triggered a dangerous, inflammatory immune response resulting in the mRNA’s destruction.
While most other researchers chose not to tackle this perplexing problem to instead pursue more lucrative and publishable exploits, Karikó stuck with it. The choice sent her academic career into depressing doldrums. Nobody would fund her work, publications dried up, and after six years as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Karikó got demoted. She was going backward.
“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” Karikó told Stat in 2020. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”
A tale of tenacity
Collaborating with Drew Weissman, a new professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in the late 1990s helped provide Karikó with the tenacity to continue. Weissman nurtured a goal of developing a vaccine against HIV-1, and saw mRNA as a potential way to do it.
“For the 20 years that we’ve worked together before anybody knew what RNA is, or cared, it was the two of us literally side by side at a bench working together,” Weissman said in an interview with Adam Smith of the Nobel Foundation.
In 2005, the duo made their 2023 Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough, detailing it in a relatively small journal, Immunity. (Their paper was rejected by larger journals, including Science and Nature.) They figured out that chemically modifying the nucleoside bases that make up mRNA allowed the molecule to slip past the body’s immune defenses. Karikó and Weissman followed up that finding by creating mRNA that’s more efficiently translated within cells, greatly boosting protein production. In 2020, scientists at Moderna and BioNTech (where Karikó worked from 2013 to 2022) rushed to craft vaccines against COVID, putting their methods to life-saving use.
The future of vaccines
Buoyed by the resounding success of mRNA vaccines, scientists are now hurriedly researching ways to use mRNA medicine against other infectious diseases, cancer, and genetic disorders. The now ubiquitous efforts stand in stark contrast to Karikó and Weissman’s previously unheralded struggles years ago as they doggedly worked to realize a shared dream that so many others shied away from. Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman were brave enough to walk a scientific path that very well could have ended in a dead end, and for that, they absolutely deserve their 2023 Nobel Prize.