This inaugural Geier Grant is awarded to epidemiologist M. Daniele Fallin, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, for her outstanding project on gene-environment interactions entitled "Genome-wide Examination of DNA Methylation in Autism." For this three-year project, Dr. Fallin will receive $449,998.
Fallin and her team will be studying gene-environment interactions across the entire genome of children affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with a focus on environmental influences during pregnancy, birth and early childhood. At present autism cannot be reliably detected before one year of age. But research suggests that it arises from disordered development during early brain growth and involves both genetic and environmental influences.
"This annual grant represents just the beginning of our commitment to fully investigate the environmental impacts that affect autism risk," Geier commented. "In the years ahead, you will see us supporting much more research in this neglected area."
Fallin will be investigating epigenetic changes in the DNA of 300 children with ASD and comparing them to changes in 300 unaffected children. Epigenetics is a rapidly growing field of research examining the factors that influence gene expression. Research has shown, for example, that environmental influences such as infections, nutrition, toxins and hormones can essentially turn genes on or off. Some of these exposures can act much like a mutation to silence a gene or dampen its activity.
On a technical level, Fallin's team will be looking at changes in DNA methylation, an epigenetic process central to gene regulation. By relating this analysis to information on specific environmental conditions during gestation, birth and early childhood, the findings have the potential to identify avoidable risks and provide guidance for earlier diagnosis and improved treatments.
"The Geier Grant is phenomenal because it recognizes that we need to better understand how environmental influences can alter the biology of the brain and body in ways that affect autism risk," Fallin said. "Epigenetics may well be the mechanism by which this interaction occurs. It is also the area of research that brings together scientists who study autism's genetics with those who study environmental influences. It is so vitally important for autism science that we have these two groups working together."
"We share Phil and Dani's excitement about this highly innovative project," added Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D. "It will explore in detail, for the first time, whether and how the environment may be influencing gene expression in autism. We hope that this will lead to insights into methods for reducing risk as well as new treatments to improve the lives of those who struggle with autism."
The Autism Speaks' Strategic Plan for Science sets environmental research as a priority, stating: Prevention and treatment of autism through alteration of potential environmental factors is now considered a fundamental goal of research… A wide range of environmental factors needs to be vigorously explored, including but not limited to exposure to toxins, vaccines, chemicals, and immune challenges.