The University of Illinois at Chicago was recently awarded $9.6 million in the form of a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish an Autism Center of Excellence. The center will be one of five funded centers in the United States, and it is the only one in the Midwest. Nationally, the NIH awards $100 million for the Autism Centers of Excellence research program.
Autism is a neurological disorder characterized by impairments in social interaction, communication and repetitive behavior. Between one-third and one-half of people with autism are not able to use their natural speech well enough to fulfill their daily communication needs. Difficulties in communicating may exhibit themselves as early as the first year of life and may include delays in the beginning of babbling, unusual gestures and reduced responsiveness.
At the age of two to three years old, autistic children less often babble or use consonants, words and word combinations. Their gestures are also less frequently used with words. Autistic children are not as prone to making requests or sharing experiences as other children are, and they often simply repeat others’ words. They also often have trouble with imaginative playing and translating symbols into language.
At the University of Illinois at Chicago, an experimental drug that works towards treating social withdrawal in autistic children and young adults is being investigated in a clinical trial. According to the UIC website, a drug treatment that would attend to symptoms that are “often disabling for patients and families” is necessary, says Dr. Edwin Cook, professor of psychiatry and director of autism and genetics studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
One-hundred and fifty participants with autism spectrum disorders between the ages of five and 21 will be evaluated in the clinical trial to test the effectiveness, safety and acceptability of the drug STX209, also known as Arbaclofen. Patients in the 22-week clinical trial will be randomly given either Arbaclofen or a placebo. The study will involve screening, treatment, withdrawal of medication and a follow-up period. Patients who finish the trial in its entirety may be allowed to enroll in a later open-label study in which all patients receive Arbaclofen.
University of Illinois at Chicago
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Adam Jones
The effects of Arbaclofen have been researched previously in children with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic disorder that is most often pointed to as causing autism. Earlier studies show that between one-quarter to one-half of patients with Fragile X syndrome are also autistic, Cook said.
"This trial is exciting because it represents the culmination of 20 years work in Fragile X research," Cook said. "We're not expecting this to cure Fragile X or autism, but it's a very important step in the development of new treatments… Finding genes is great, but it's all about treatment."
Cook's University of Illinois at Chicago research team also includes co-investigator Dr. Fedra Najjar, assistant professor of psychiatry, and study coordinators Sarah Youngkin and Clare Tessman.
Socially conscious research like this autism clinical trial is par for the course for researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. According to the UIC website, the University of Illinois has an annual operating budget of $5.01 billion and has attracted over $740 million in research funding in 2011-2012.
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