Maine Behavioral Healthcare and MMCRI Bring Largest Autism Study to Northern New England

May 25, 2017
SPARK for Autism Research logo with young boy wearing glasses

Maine Behavioral Healthcare | All News 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Media Contact: Amy Safford, Director of Marketing and Communications, Maine Behavioral Healthcare
asafford@mainebehavioralhealthcare.org or 207-661-6616

South Portland, Maine (May 25, 2017) – Autism has a strong genetic component. To date, approximately 50 genes have been identified that almost certainly play a role in autism, and researchers estimate that at least an additional 300 are involved. But to identify all the genes at play, many more genetic samples are needed from those with autism and their immediate families.

That’s where SPARK comes in. SPARK is an online scientific study and community of individuals with autism and their families. Launched just a year ago, Maine Behavioral Healthcare and the Center for Autism and Developmental Disorders in South Portland has partnered with SPARK to enroll over 50,000 people.

SPARK’s goals are twofold: first, to identify the hundreds of autism genes at play and to link them to the biological mechanisms that they govern, as well as to any environmental factors to which participants with autism may have been exposed. Researchers can better understand the condition’s causes by linking specific identified genes to the diverse array of symptoms, skills and challenges of those affected. Second, it seeks to connect these individuals and families to research opportunities that advance the understanding of autism.

Why genes? And why 50,000 nationwide?
It is estimated that it will take 50,000 genetic profiles of people with autism nationwide to identify a large percentage of the genetic factors contributing to autism. SPARK principal investigator Wendy Chung, M.D., says, “Statistically, if we succeed in working with 50,000 participants on the autism spectrum, we will be able to identify at least 250 genes that contribute to autism that can be used to better understand how the brain is different in individuals with autism and potentially identify targets to develop medications that can be used to support individuals with autism.”

In a genetic study of this scope, it is important to collect not only DNA from the person with autism but also that of both of his/her biological parents (a ‘trio’). Trios enable scientists to identify whether an autism gene was passed down from a parent or ‘sprung up’ in a different way.

Why Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont?
Maine Behavioral Healthcare was recently chosen as the clinical site for Northern New England, with the goal of the annually enrolling 250 sets of these trios over a three-year period. “SPARK is a unique opportunity for people in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to participate in cutting edge research and receive results from the most advanced genetic analysis available,” says Matthew Siegel, M.D., principal investigator for SPARK Northern New England, based at Maine Behavioral Healthcare and Maine Medical Center Research Institute (MMCRI).

Participants can register for the study at:
www.sparkforautism.org/mainemedicalcenter

Anyone interested in learning more about SPARK or in participating may contact:
Laurie A. Raymond, LCSW
Research Coordinator
SPARK Northern New England (NNE)
Maine Medical Center Research Institute
Phone: 207-661-7620
SPARK EMAIL: sparknne@mmc.org
SPARK Northern New England Site: https://sparkforautism.org/mainemedicalcenter

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About Maine Behavioral Healthcare
Maine Behavioral Healthcare (MBH) is a nonprofit organization serving more than 20,000 children, adolescents and adults at over 30 locations throughout southern, western, and mid-coast Maine, providing a continuum of coordinated mental healthcare from outpatient community offices to inpatient acute care at Spring Harbor Hospital.
Learn more at www.mainebehavioralhealthcare.org.


About Maine Medical Center
Maine Medical Center (MMC), recognized as the number-one ranked hospital in Maine by U.S. News and World Report for 2016-2017, is a complete health care resource for the people of Greater Portland and the entire state, as well as northern New England. As a nonprofit institution, Maine Medical Center provides nearly 23 percent of all the charity care delivered in Maine. MMC is a member of the MaineHealth system, a growing family of health care services in northern New England. For more information, visit www.mmc.org.

About The Maine Medical Center Research Institute
The Maine Medical Center Research Institute (MMC) is the research arm of Maine Medical Center and seeks to enhance the health of our population through excellence in research across the spectrum of the biomedical and health sciences. MMCRI spans the spectrum of biomedical research, with basic research programs in cardiovascular biology and stem cell biology, a growing clinical and translational research program, outcomes research and evaluation, and psychiatric research. For more information, please visit www.mmcri.org.

More About SPARK
SPARK (Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge) is a national autism research initiative that will connect individuals with a professional diagnosis of autism and their biological family members to research opportunities to advance our understanding of autism. SPARK’s goal in doing this is not only to better understand autism but to accelerate the development of new treatments and supports.

SPARK was designed to be easily accessible to the entire autism community, and it was designed in consultation with adults with autism, parents, researchers, clinicians, service providers and advocates.

Registering for this first-of-its-kind initiative can be done entirely online in the convenience of one’s home and at no cost. DNA will be collected via saliva kits shipped directly to participants. SPARK will provide access to online resources and the latest research in autism, which may provide participants and families with valuable information to help address daily challenges.

For researchers, SPARK provides a large, well-characterized cohort of genetic, medical and behavioral data, and will result in cost savings for researchers by reducing startup costs for individual studies.

SPARK is partnering with 25 clinical sites across the country as well as autism organizations, service providers and key influencers to help spread the word about SPARK and to recruit participants. Through these strategic partnerships, SFARI hopes to reach and engage a diverse and large number of individuals and families affected by autism.

SPARK is entirely funded by SFARI, a scientific initiative within the Simons Foundation’s suite of programs.

About Autism
Autism is an umbrella term used to describe a group of complex developmental disorders — autism spectrum disorders — caused by genes or combinations of genes, perhaps in concert with environmental influences. These disorders are characterized by deficits in social communication (both verbal and nonverbal) and the presence of repetitive behaviors or restricted interests. An estimated one in 68 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum. The wide range of autism manifestations makes it challenging to study potential causes or treatments, and thus a large cohort that can be segmented — genetically and by the condition’s manifestation — can substantially advance such efforts.

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