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Whole genome sequencing promises improved autism genetics research

15 July 2013
Appeared in BioNews 713

Whole genome sequencing suggests that around half of all people with autism may be carriers of genes already associated with the condition.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) - a class of syndromes grouped by shared impairments in social communication - have so far eluded researchers' attempts at genetic characterisation, due in part to ASD's clinical diversity. Although family studies suggest a strong genetic dimension to ASD, prior studies only found genetic factors in 20 percent of patients, at most.

But early results (32 patients were included together with their families) from what researchers claim is the world's first large-scale autism study to sequence entire genomes, rather than just the regions that code for proteins, suggest that estimate is conservative.

Dr Steve Scherer, director of the Centre for Applied Genomics at The Hospital for Sick Children in Canada, told The Canadian Press: 'What we're saying is, based on this pilot study, if you take 100 new diagnoses of autism and we sequence in their genomes, in 50 percent [...] we would find a genetic variant that either explains their autism or some of the associated medical complications that come along with that'.

But Dr Scherer adds: 'We can't say we found in those individuals the cause of autism'.

Instead, this technique discovered both inherited and spontaneous mutations associated with ASD symptoms by comparing the genomes of ASD individuals to their parents'. To a burgeoning collection of over 100 known ASD risk genes, the researchers unearthed four new genes that appear related to ASD, and eight candidate genes. They corroborated a further ten genes put forward as candidates by other groups.

ASD is thought to arise biologically from variable combinations from a set of hundreds of risk genes, many of which most people with autism will not carry.

The Hospital for Sick Children, BGI-Shenzhen in China and Duke University in the USA ran the study as the pilot of an initiative championed by ASD charity and advocacy group Autism Speaks to sequence the genomes of 10,000 individuals with, or related to someone with, ASD.

The researchers hope to use whole genome sequencing to uncover more genes and, in doing so, clarify the causes of ASD.

Dr Robert Ring, Autism Speaks' chief science officer and study co-author, commented: 'From diagnosis to treatment to prevention, whole genome sequencing efforts like these hold the potential to fundamentally transform the future of medical care for people with autism'.
SOURCES & REFERENCES
Autism Speaks collaborative releases first full genome sequencing for autism
EurekAlert! (press release) |  11 July 2013
Canadian-led team delves deep into genetic code of autistic individuals
Globe and Mail |  11 July 2013
Detection of Clinically Relevant Genetic Variants in Autism Spectrum Disorder by Whole-Genome Sequencing
The American Journal of Human Genetics |  11 July 2013
More genes linked to autism with advanced sequencing tool
CBC News |  11 July 2013
Researchers close in on better, faster ways to diagnose autism
Vancouver Sun |  11 July 2013
Tackling the Whole Autism Genome: Insights for Diagnosis and Care
Autism Speaks (press release) |  11 July 2013
Whole genome sequencing opens a new way for the diagnosis and medical therapy for autism
EurekAlert! (press release) |  11 July 2013
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