The Times Newspapers Limited, January 11 1998
Gene breakthrough holds key to cure for autism
by Zoe Brennan
BRITISH scientists have identified the location of a group of genes that are responsible for autism. The pioneering study could help in the search for a cure and treatment for one of the least understood mental disorders.
The landmark research is the first indication that the condition is inherited. It could end the debate that the developmental disorder made famous by the Hollywood film Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman, may be caused by a child's upbringing. The research could also herald a pre-natal test for the handicap.
After a three-year international research project a team of scientists from Oxford, Newcastle and London will announce in a scientific journal in March that they have located the marker for genes that appear to be responsible for autism. This opens the way for further research into the condition. Children with autism and allied disorders such as Asperger syndrome have difficulty communicating and relating to others, and also have behavioural problems.
The condition varies widely, with some children able to go on to university while others suffer from acute learning disabilities. A small number show remarkable and inexplicable talent in specific subjects such as art or maths - similar to that exhibited by the character played by Hoffman, who possessed astonishing powers of mental arithmetic. Sufferers are often described as living in their own world and only half learn to speak effectively.
The British research team looked at 99 families from Europe and America who had more than one child affected by autism in a search for similarities in their genetic make-up. Only 3% of autistic children have a sibling also affected.
"We have found something very significant which pushes us to the next stage of analysing these genes," said Anthony Monaco from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford University. "We have found that autism is probably a complex genetic disorder. It is not one due to a single gene, as are cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy."
The scientists will now begin the slow process of analysing the genes to determine what treatment could be used to help autistic people in the future.
"We have pinpointed the area where these genes may be. This is phase one in a long process," said Monaco. "It is very hard to predict at this stage what this will mean in trying to find a cure." The nature of the genes will provide the key to future medical help for people with autism, he said.
"If the genes are good targets for pharmaceutical intervention, there could be hope for a cure, although there are few precedents for that in genetic science," he said.
Families with autistic children have welcomed the discovery. "I am amazed that this research has shown results during my children's lifetime," said Jo Swinn, the mother of James and Thomas, 11-year-old autistic twins.
"Even the smallest glimmer of hope is fantastic. It doesn't surprise me in the least that the study has shown autism is genetic. Many people I know with autistic youngsters are able to name somebody in their family tree who probably had undiagnosed autism."
The number of children with autism is thought to be increasing, but the rise could be simply a result of improvements in diagnosis. As the researchers link various other learning disorders to autism, it has also emerged that the number of people affected by these disorders approaches 1 percent of the population. It had previously been thought that only 2 out of 1,000 people were affected.
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