New genetic 'fishing net' harvests elusive autism gene

DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke University Medical Center researchers have developed a new statistical genetic "fishing net" that they have cast into a sea of complex genetic data on autistic children to harvest an elusive autism gene.

Moreover, the researchers said that the success of the approach will be broadly applicable to studying genetic risk factors for other complex genetic diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

In this case, the gene, which encodes part of a brain neurotransmitter docking station called the gamma-Aminobutyric Acid Receptor beta3-subunit (GABRB3), has been implicated in autism previously, but never positively linked to the disease. Their findings will be published in the March 2003 issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics and is now available on the Web at http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/AJHG/journal/issues/v72n3/024607/024607.html.

"Many research groups have been actively looking for genetic risk factors that can lead to autism, but without much success," said Margaret Pericak-Vance, Ph.D., director of the Duke Center for Human Genetics and lead investigator of the study.

Autism is the common term that encompasses an overlapping group of complex developmental disorders that are diagnosed in about one in 1,000 children under the age of 3. Each autistic child has a unique set of characteristics that affect his or her behavior, communication skills and ability to interact with others. It is the very diverse, complex nature of autism that has made it so difficult to locate distinct genetic risk factors, said Pericak-Vance.

After several genetic studies turned up only a few vague genetic clues, the research team decided a new approach was needed. Pericak-Vance hypothesized that grouping patients with similar traits together statistically might enhance the scientist

Contact: Richard Puff
Duke University Medical Center

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