While autism affects 1 in 59 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the exact causes of the condition remain unknown. A new research effort at Harvard University hopes to unlock the mysteries of autism by identifying the biological roots and molecular changes that lead to it, enabling the development of better diagnostic tools and therapies.
According to a report this month by the Harvard Gazette, the research is being funded through a $20 million gift from philanthropists and Harvard alumni Lisa Yang and Hock Tan. The funds will be used to establish the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research at Harvard Medical School. With the latest gift, Yang and Tan will have contributed almost $70 million to autism-research funding. The new center will bring together diverse scientists and clinicians from Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, and Harvard-affiliated hospitals.
“Medical history has taught us that truly transformative therapies flow only from a clear understanding of the fundamental biology that underlies a condition,” Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daly said. “This gift will allow our researchers to generate critical insights about autism and related disorders.”
Investigators at the new center will work with researchers at MIT to better understand and explain the roots of autism, developing new treatments as a result. Researchers will focus on what goes wrong during the first two years of life, a period of rapid brain development that is also the typical window of an autism diagnosis. Researchers will explore how molecular and cellular changes contribute to autism during this stage, as well as the impact that organs outside the brain, such as the peripheral nervous system, might have in the development of autism.
The research conducted at the new center will complement efforts already underway at the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.
“We are excited and hopeful that these sibling centers at Harvard and MIT — two powerhouses of biomedical research — will continue to collaborate in a synergistic way and bring about critical new insights to our understanding of autism,” Yang said.