SPARK Project to Examine DNA of 50,000 Autistic Kids, Looking for Solutions


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Seth Augenstein, Digital Reporter

A genomics research project hopes to collect and cross-reference the DNA of 50,000 people to better understand the autism spectrum.

SPARK, the Sims Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge, began its public push to get the saliva samples of thousands of volunteers last week, according to the group’s site.

“The information from this study will help to identify genetic and non-genetic factors that contribute to ASD,” the consent form for the study reads.

The lead researcher is Wendy Chung, Herbert Irving Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine and Director of Clinical Genetics at Columbia University, and a top geneticist in the field of autism.

“Knowledge is power, and SPARK was created because we simply haven’t learned enough about the genetics and other possible causes of autism,” says Wendy Chung, SPARK’s principal investigator. “SPARK will help researchers make new discoveries that will ultimately lead to the development of new supports and treatments to improve the lives of people living with challenges. Together, we can ‘spark’ a movement in autism research.”

Participants in the study are sent a kit in which to provide a saliva sample, and then send back by mail. A survey must also be filled out. Participants will then receive a $50 gift card.

The data will all be uploaded to the National Database for Autism Research.

The work is funded by the Simons Foundation for Autism Research, or SFARI. Sharing the data will be part of the project’s tenets.

“A major goal of SPARK is to accelerate clinical research in autism by providing a large resource to the entire research community,” says Pamela Feliciano, scientific director of SPARK. “All qualified researchers will be able to access SPARK genomic, medical and behavioral data and recruit for their studies from SPARK as soon as possible.”

SPARK is not the first attempt to push forward the genetic underpinnings of autism. The Autism Genome Project has been searching for a wide swath of genetic causation of spectrum disorders since 2004. According to the advocacy group Autism Speaks, clinicians can now identify the genetic basis of some 10 to 20 percent of autism cases.

Incremental breakthroughs have been made over the last year. Last May, a scientist at the University at Buffalo (SUNY) identified a mutation on the Shank3 gene in mice which they said could be reversed, providing a potential route for therapies. This past December, a Harvard team pinpointed a neurotransmitter that was at fault in some other cases on the spectrum.