Since the diagnosis of Autism, it has become one of the most befuddling areas of scientific inquiry. There is no known cause, no cure, and treatments are limited. That is why Dr. Mirjana Maletic-Savatic of the Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital and her team have been trying to discover a way to improve their knowledge of this mercurial disease.
Their most current project involves using skin cells from an autistic child to grow neurons outside of their body so that researchers might be able to study them and find what it is that is different about the autistic brain.
“This is the closest that we can get to the human model of disease,” said Dr. Maletic-Savatic. “It’s a human disease in a dish.”
Since they cannot study active neurons in a person with Autism, they are trying to re-create them in a testable environment so that they can dissect the disease both literally and metaphorically.
Maletic-Savatic and her team have two main goals. They are trying first and foremost to find what it is that causes autism to develop in the first place. They want to find whether the developmental factors are genetic, environmental, natural, or synthetic.
Secondly they are hoping to find ways to identify autism earlier so that they can begin treating a child with the disease earlier, hopefully helping to minimize the damage it causes.
“We are trying to generate a composite biomarker that can help us diagnose autism earlier,” said Maletic-Savatic. “The earlier you start to do therapy, the more flexible they’ll be.”
The process involves regressing the skin cells back to their stem cell stage. At that point, the team re-encodes the cells to develop into neurons, rather than cells from the epidermis of the patient.
By recreating neurons in a dish, they can then perform a variety of experiments to see what will help them turn into the neurons typical in an autistic child, and what can avoid that development.
“What we plan to do is grow these neurons in a dish and see: What are the mechanisms that lead to this?”
“Quite honestly, it is in the very early stages, this whole technology,” Maletic-Savatic added.
While this is a flagship project, it has great potential to lead to enormous breakthroughs. By being able to use individual cells without injuring the patient and then track the development of those cells, answers to not only autism but a variety of mysterious conditions may be found.
For now, the team will do as much as they can with one Petri dish of cells at a time.