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Process suspected in cancer may also have role in autism

Story Date: Wed, 09 Oct 2013 15:01:00 CDT

A cell-signaling pathway being studied for its role in cancer may also be involved in certain kinds of autism, according to EVMS scientists.

In a bit of scientific serendipity, autism researchers in EVMS Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences tapped into the expertise of Amy Tang, PhD, an Associate Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Cell Biology and a member of the Leroy T. Canoles Jr. Cancer Research Center. Dr. Tang has been studying a specific signaling pathway called Ras that, when it malfunctions, appears to be involved in causing cancer to develop and spread.

“They’re the same pathways in all cells of the body,” says Stephen Deutsch, MD, PhD, Professor and Ann Armistead Robinson Chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “These pathways exist in the brain.”

Ras is part of a constellation of interconnected signaling pathways that includes another, known as mTOR, that is known to be more active than normal in people with syndromic autism — forms of the disorder with a defined cause, usually a genetic abnormality such as fragile X syndrome. Studies of a specific mouse strain have shown that using medication to control mTOR signaling can improve sociability in mice that show behaviors similar to those of people with autism.

The scientists wondered whether abnormal activation of the Ras pathway in the brain may similarly contribute to behaviors associated with autism. The team — which included Jessica Burket, MS, and research assistant Andrew Benson, as well as Drs. Deutsch and Tang — studied a different breed of mouse, one that has significantly higher than normal rates of Ras activity. Those mice also display impaired social behaviors similar to autism.

The result: Small doses of the same medication resulted in normal social interaction among the mice. That means some drugs intended to treat cancerous tumors could be studied as possible treatments for syndromic autism, and vice versa.

In addition to opening new avenues of treatment for both cancer and autism, Dr. Tang says this work demonstrates the cross-discipline collaboration inherent to an academic medical campus like EVMS.

“This is a fantastic partnership,” she says. “This is an example of the benefit of thinking out of the box.”

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