Kudos to UNC researchers who have found autism clues

October 21, 2013 

For parents, a child’s diagnosis of autism can explain some different behaviors, but the answers to “why?” have been difficult in coming. Research is ongoing, and some progress in treatment has been made, but the origins of the autism disorder remain a troubling mystery.

The differences in brain development in youngsters who are autistic can be manifested by difficulty in ordinary communication and concentration or by repetitive behavior. There are instances in which those who are autistic show good aptitude in the arts or in music or in math.

Two UNC-Chapel Hill researchers, each on a different research path, might have hit on an environmental cause for some autism. Basically, Mark Zylka and Benjamin Philpot think a cancer drug that worked by stopping cell division and tumor growth could be linked to effects on genes that are connected to autism. Use of the cancer drug isn’t common in pregnant women, but there are drugs on the market that have some of the same effects on enzymes – molecules that affect DNA, among other purposes – including some antibiotics and antifungals.

In short, the properties of some drugs might be linked to a cause of autism.

Zylka and Philpot now will join forces, thanks in part to a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, to focus their research on autism.

The two have had neighboring labs at UNC, and it was through informal discussion of their projects that this discovery came about. Zylka summed up a lot of history in the research world when he said, “That’s science. You’re trying to do something and you find something else.”

It is heartening for the Triangle that UNC-CH and Duke often lead the nation in medical research. And in cases of significant and exciting research such as this, it’s pretty heartening for the nation and the world, too.

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