Treating Autism, Can Stem Cells Help?

Dec 11 2012 Posted: 13:16 GMT

Stem Cell Scientists and Autism Research Groups at TCD and NUI Galway to outline New Research Project

Public Forum, Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin, 7pm, 12 December, 2012

Often seen as an alternative to embryonic stem cells, iPS - or induced pluripotent stem cells - are adult stem cells reprogrammed to an embryonic-like state.  IPS cells are increasingly of interest to scientists studying brain disorders such as autism, since accessing brain tissue is so difficult. Recent breakthroughs in autism genetics research have revealed that a small but significant minority of individuals with autism may have rare genetic changes that are potentially causative of their condition.

The TCD autism research group, which has investigated the genetic causes of autism for over a decade, has teamed up with scientists at the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI) in NUI Galway to apply stem cell technology to further the understanding of autism that may lead towards the identification of better treatments. In a first for Ireland, REMEDI has already begun producing iPS cells from the skin cells of people with autism and their siblings.

This new research project hopes to find out how rare genetic changes might impact on the functioning of brain cells using iPS cell models. This research may ultimately help to identify drugs that could help to treat symptoms of the disease pathology. TCD’s Autism Research Group, and REMEDI scientists are reaching out to families who may be willing to participate in this innovative research.

A public forum entitled ‘Treating Autism, Can Stem Cells Help?’ will be held on Wednesday, 12 of December at 6pm at the Science Gallery at TCD. Professor Louise Gallagher, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Principal Investigator of the TCD Autism Research Group will discuss the recent breakthroughs in autism genetics emerging from the work of the TCD group and how this has begun to inform some understanding of the causes of autism; REMEDI’s Outreach Officer Danielle Nicholson will explain about Stem Cell technology and Professor Sanbing Shen, Professor of Stem Cell Biology at REMEDI will discuss the work from his lab which has begun producing iPS cells from the skin cells of people with autism and their siblings. The event will be chaired by Dr Geraldine Leader, Director of Centre for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Research (ICAN) at NUI Galway.

“Our research in autism genetics over the last 10 years or more has revealed interesting rare genetic causes of autism. By applying this new and exciting technology to further investigate autism we may identify the underlying mechanisms of these genetic anomalies in causing autistic spectrum disorders”, explains Professor Louise Gallagher. Over the years we have been indebted to over 300 individuals with autism and their parents and families who have participated in our active research programs and biorepository collections. We are hoping that this exciting public forum will provide a further opportunity to engage with the autism community and provide information about this exciting initiative in autism research.

Professor Sanbing Shen explains the science: “We are in the very early stages of research, but by reprogramming skin cells, we may provide a way to study neuronal cells in autism and to test new therapies. These iPS cells can specialize into different cell types raising the possibility to treat patients with their own stem cells. This is exciting news for people who are affected by conditions that have no treatment.”

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine was awarded jointly to Sir John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka “for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent”. This Irish initiative now hopes to bring this science to bear on autism.

The prevalence of autism is on the rise. In the United States, the Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 110 children will be diagnosed with autism.  Among boys the incidence is 1 in 70.

“Although there are no comparable studies on autism in Ireland, it is believed the prevalence is similar to that found in the US,” says Dr Geraldine Leader. “A diagnosis of autism can have a devastating effect on a family and the lack of autism services in Ireland places an enormous burden on parents. Neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism affect individuals and their families across the life span. Yet parents and families are the true advocates for those diagnosed. Stem cell research like this is the cutting edge of science, and is one of many opportunities which we would like to provide to families.”

NUI Galway has become a leading centre of translational research in adult stem cells involving its National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science (NCBES) and REMEDI, which is funded by Science Foundation Ireland. The REMEDI team, which includes Professor Timothy O’Brien and Professor Frank Barry, are partnering with academics and clinicians from all over Ireland including Trinity College Dublin, the Royal College of Surgeons and Galway University Hospitals, to study iPS cells and their clinical potential in the treatment of many different diseases.

For more information on the public forum visit


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