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NIH awards Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) grant linking Atlanta research partners

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Holly Korschun

$8.3 million grant solidifies partnership among Marcus Autism Center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory's Department of Pediatrics, and Yerkes National Primate Research Center

A new Autism Center of Excellence (ACE), funded by a grant of more than $8.3 million to Emory University from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will create a comprehensive and collaborative research effort among Marcus Autism Center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, the Department of Pediatrics in Emory University School of Medicine, and Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory. The ACE is one of only three such centers nationwide and will bring together more than 25 researchers and physicians in eight laboratories in the three highly connected Atlanta institutions, along with collaborators at Florida State University.

"This new Center of Excellence designation and grant from the NIH are a direct result of the incredible community of scientists and collaborative opportunities available in Atlanta through Marcus, Emory, Children's and Yerkes, and our many pediatric partners," says Ami Klin, principal investigator and director of the ACE. "We also owe our success directly to the strong support of community members such as Bernie Marcus, the Whitehead Foundation and our partnership with the Georgia Research Alliance."

"The Marcus Autism Center of Excellence will help to bring the best autism researchers and physicians to Atlanta," said Gov. Nathan Deal. "I commend Dr. Klin not only for leading this team of experts, but also for his continued commitment to serving Georgia families and to making our state a national leader in autism research and treatment."

A nationally recognized leader in autism research, Klin is Director of Marcus Autism Center, a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and professor of pediatrics in Emory School of Medicine.

"This incredible collaborative community effort with the foundations, institutions and laboratories in our new ACE empowers unique technologies, methods and research achievements that create an ideal environment for translating research into improved patient care and community outreach," says Doug Hertz, Chairman, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Board of Trustees.

The ACE will study risk and resilience for autism in infants and toddlers through fundamental research and new screening programs in early infancy. This innovative research program will set the stage for changing autism's course even before there is obvious disability. The ACE also will create a new community-based system of health care delivery for infants and toddlers with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and their families.

"One in every 88 children is affected by autism and related disorders nationally, and one in 84 is affected in Georgia. This boost to the research engine at Marcus Autism Center is going to have an enormous impact on thousands of lives," says Bernie Marcus, who founded the center in 1991. "This research collaboration will transform the way we identify and care for children with autism, allowing us to better serve them and their families."

"We have discovered that markers of risk for ASD can be identified early in infancy, although actual behavioral symptoms don't emerge until the second year of life," notes Klin. "The brain depends on human experiences in early development, so if we can capitalize on that initial window when the brain is still able to adapt and change, we believe we can raise the prospects of significantly altering the natural course of ASD and making a significant difference in the lives of children with autism and their families."

The center is a transformational opportunity for Atlanta that includes many groups coming together to support a common mission. It includes scientists at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health and the NIH-sponsored Atlanta Clinical and Translational Science Institute (ACTSI). The Georgia Research Alliance will support the center through its eminent scholars and affiliated research.

"The selection of Marcus Autism Center as a national Autism Center of Excellence demonstrates that Georgia's strategy of recruiting the brightest minds and providing them with the tools they need to solve some of our most challenging problems is working," says C. Michael Cassidy, president and CEO of the Georgia Research Alliance.  "We are proud that GRA has helped to bring this collaboration of Emory University and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta together. With the support of Bernie and Billi Marcus, the NIH, and the state, these organizations are poised to make the future brighter for children and their families facing the challenges of autism."

Children's Healthcare of Atlanta is one of the largest clinical providers of pediatric health care in the nation, and Marcus Autism Center is the largest center of clinical care for individuals with autism and their families. In addition to Emory's Department of Pediatrics, the ACE also will benefit from collaborations with Emory's Department of Human Genetics, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Kids Health First network of pediatricians, and the Georgia Department of Public Health's network of early intervention providers.

"Through the ACE and other programs at Marcus Autism Center, we hope to be able to change the course of young infants with autism," says Barbara J. Stoll, the George W. Brumley, Jr. Professor and Chair of Emory's Department of Pediatrics. "The unique combination of scientific and clinical expertise, leveraging the strengths of a consortium of top-tier institutions, is poised to transform our understanding of and care delivery for patients and families with autism. None of this would have been possible without the vision and generosity of Bernie and Billi Marcus, who saw the need to build a premier autism center in Atlanta."

The first two ACE research projects will focus on social visual engagement and social vocal engagement in ASD, building on earlier research first conducted by Klin and collaborators Warren Jones and Gordon Ramsay, colleagues at Marcus Autism Center and faculty members in Emory's Department of Pediatrics. Pioneering eye-tracking studies of social engagement and biological motion in adolescents, toddlers and infants have already uncovered factors that are predictive of ASD in the first six months of life. 

Recent work with social visual engagement compared typical infants and infants at risk for ASD. An expanded research program at Marcus Autism Center will follow infants from birth with new tests of social visual engagement and social vocal engagement measured through "growth charts" comparing normal social engagement and deviations in the first year of life.

Amy Wetherby, distinguished research professor and L.L. Schendel professor of communication disorders at Florida State University, will lead the third project focused on early treatment that can change the developmental trajectory of autism. Wetherby has been a leading investigator of effective early screening and treatment for toddlers with ASD. She will use proven procedures with social communication to screen infants before their first birthday and carry out a randomized clinical trial for treatment beginning at age 12 months — the earliest such trial thus far.

The fourth project, at Yerkes Research Center, will study brain, and behavior in rhesus macaques, connecting eye-tracking behavioral studies of social visual engagement and growth charts of social engagement along with genetics, behavioral and brain imaging studies in nonhuman primates. Leading this project is Jocelyne Bachevalier, who described the first nonhuman primate model of autism and will work with scientists who have expertise in nonhuman primate social cognition, emotion, and identity, as well as with scientists who have expertise in brain development and neuro-imaging. Her Yerkes collaborators include Lisa Parr and Mar Sanchez.

The ACE also will promote education and training to disseminate best practices to primary care providers and to present relevant and empowering information to affected families and the community at large. The center also will integrate bioethical considerations in research, clinical training and practice in ASD.

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