Hunting for autism's chemical clues

Left to right: Charmion Cruickshank and Troy Wood. Wood, an associate professor of chemistry, heads a study that could one day contribute to the development of a biological test for autism.

On her laptop computer one recent afternoon, University at Buffalo researcher Charmion Cruickshank calls up a mass spectrometry readout showing the breakdown of chemicals in the urine of a child with autism.

She has similar information for nine other children -- four with the disorder and five without -- and she has spent the past few years sifting through this puzzle of data for autism's clues.

The goal of the research, led by UB Troy Wood, is to pinpoint an array of that appear in distinct amounts in the urine of children with autism. If the team is successful, a biological test for diagnosing the disorder -- so far elusive -- could be within reach.

Such a test would provide clinicians with a more objective way of identifying autism, which is currently diagnosed by observing behavior.

"We're trying to understand, at the molecular level, how autism is occurring and manifesting itself," said Wood, an associate professor of chemistry. "A biological test for autism could assist with early , which is critical because if you can identify children with autism early in life, the outcome is going to be better."

Pilot studies in Wood's laboratory have uncovered what may be a number of distinctive chemical traits in the urine of children with autism.

For example, compounds that appeared at depleted levels include the reduced form of glutathione -- a finding that Cruickshank, a UB PhD graduate, outlined in the dissertation she defended this May. Levels of stercobilin, another substance, also seemed abnormally low.

Deficiencies of both of these compounds are an indicator of oxidative stress, which some researchers believe plays a role in autism, Wood said.

To verify these preliminary results, which have not been published in a journal, Wood is hoping to complete a larger, validation study. Such a study would analyze 75 to 100 urine samples from children with autism, and an equal number of urine samples from children in a control group.

Besides stercobilin and reduced glutathione, Wood and his team have also identified a handful of other compounds in the urine that may be correlated with autism. He noted that for a biological test to be reliable, scientists will need to identify not just one or two compounds that are biomarkers for autism, but several.

Cruickshank, now a postdoctoral researcher at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colo., and Zachary Fine, a former UB student who helped process in Wood's lab, said they hoped their work would eventually lead, one day, to real benefits for children with autism. Both researchers have friends who either had the disorder themselves or had family members with autism.

"The hope is to be able to eliminate some of the subjectiveness in diagnosing autism, and to get a better understanding of what's actually causing it," said Fine, who graduated in May with a bachelor of science in chemistry and is now a quality assurance analyst at Johnson & Johnson. "They're saying that more have autism today than before, but it's not clear if that's because they're understanding the disease better, or if people are just diagnosing it more."

The research in Wood's laboratory on biomarkers is conducted, in part, with a Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer that was purchased in 2011 using a National Institutes of Health stimulus grant.

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quicksilver
5 / 5 (1) Jul 06, 2012
Hi

The chemical trail for detecting autism is all powerful.

I find it depressing that after 40 years we still need to hunt for the chemical fingerprint for autism.

I find it depressing that chemicals looked at in 2012 are so simple. Why did we not look decades ago at thes simple entities?

Spending 99.99 per cent of research money on DNA analysis is wasteful in the exptreme.

Past so called top experts in the autism field can be seen finding brain destroying chemicals in all children and explaining this away as evidence that brain destroying chemicals must be good for them.

I find it VERY DISTURBING that this very young researcher into chemical fingerprints has already had to DEFEND her work! WHY?

It is evident to a stone age man that chemicals are the makers of life and will be the precipitators of ILLNESS like autism.

Go for it, WASHINGTON!
BossyBrenda
5 / 5 (1) Aug 19, 2012
Well of course it will be, the brain works chemically, thats a well known fact. However, it says for children, can this also be the same case for finding out if adults have the syndrome? I agree quicksilver, all this should have been looked into a very long time ago, and it has also been known for many many years that boys are more likely to have it than girls, but as of yet have seen nothing new here printed in 2012 about girls that have it and the effects etc. Like anything I suppose it could be a genetic trait, but that could also be argued from what I can see.