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Collaboration Is Key In ASD Research

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Symposium brings together Canadian and Israeli investigators to strengthen research ties

TORONTO, March 14, 2014 — In the world of autism research, collaboration isn’t just helpful, it’s essential.

Dr. Wendy Roberts“The whole concept of collaboration and research has really changed over the past decade,” says Dr. Wendy Roberts, a developmental pediatrician at SickKids Hospital in Toronto, Canada, and a leading Canadian researcher on the genetics, early identification of and interventions for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Research on isolating the ASD genome didn’t take off, for example, says Roberts, until 165 investigators around the world decided to share their data to begin to build a picture of the autism phenotype. “It takes the field forward a lot faster when you’ve got large numbers of researchers contributing their data sets. Now we can really see how many bits of DNA are either missing or duplicated. If we hadn’t had those huge numbers, we wouldn’t have found that out.”

For these reasons, collaboration is a driving force behind the inaugural Canada-Israel Autism (ASD) Research Symposium, just held at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Israel Institute for Advanced Studies. The symposium, the first of its kind, brought together top-level ASD researchers from both countries to share their areas of specialization and promote research collaboration. The event is a partnership between the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Hub at the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC) at The Hebrew University and the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (CFHU).

Connie PuttermanThe symposium had three objectives, says Torontonian Connie Putterman, a consultant and CFHU board member, and one of the members of the meeting’s scientific program committee: “We want to create and foster partnerships in autism research between Canadian and Israeli researchers, highlight expertise in both countries that address needs for research and affect treatment outcomes, and bring updated clinical and research knowledge to parents, front-line workers and other interested parties.”

The symposium was a chance to build on existing research relationships between Canada and Israel, says Roberts. For example, Canadian scientists have been able to replicate Israeli data showing that there’s a higher incidence of autism in children whose fathers are over age 40. Similarly, researchers in both countries have shared findings and data on the baby siblings of children with autism. “We thought when we started out that 5% of younger siblings would turn out to have autism,” says Roberts. “In fact it’s more like 28% for boys.” Roberts notes that her team will be using Israeli researcher Dr. Ruth Feldman’s work on physiological measurements of children with autism in the next phase of their research.

“Israel has been a leader in the physiological measurements, and the temperament and neurobiology of children with ASD,” says Roberts, “and that research links very nicely with the early signs of autism research and baby siblings of children with autism that started in Canada. Both countries have a lot to offer. With that kind of complementary research relationship, we can really both go forward to improve the early identification and thus early interventions.” The conference also offered a chance to share ideas on building both government and private-sector support for ASD research.

The third day of the conference was open to and focused on parents, members of the public and front-line workers. Featured speakers included Putterman, who has a son on the autism spectrum, and Lihi Lapid, author of the Israeli bestseller Woman of Valor and wife of Israeli finance minister Yair Lapid: the Lapids have a daughter with autism.

That day in particular showcased in particular interventions and treatments that can help parents and caregivers deal with some of the challenges ASD can pose and learn more about what the future holds in terms of treatments.

“I think that the conference gave hope to parents and front-line clinicians that the research is really building a body of knowledge that will impact both how quickly we intervene, how effectively we intervene and give us new tools and potentially medications,” says Roberts. 

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