Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is estimated to affect 1 in 59 individuals in the United States, with symptoms generally appearing within the first two years of life. The disorder affects social interactions and behaviors, but has a range of symptoms. While some cases of ASD have been linked to mutations in a specific gene, many cases are likely due to a complex mix of genetic and environmental effects.

A desire to boost interdisciplinary and cutting-edge research into the genetic, biological, and neurological mechanisms underlying this intractable disorder led Lisa Yang and Hock Tan ’75 SM’75 to establish the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research at the McGovern Institute in 2017. They founded the center to support and catalyze revolutionary new research approaches and potential treatments for individuals affected by this disorder. The center, headed by Robert Desimone emphasizes novel projects that are difficult to fund through traditional grants. By concentrating research efforts on new models, therapeutic approaches, and a push toward understanding changes in the human brain, the center aims to better detect, treat, and potentially prevent the most severe forms of ASD.

 

Research Goals

New Models

Guoping Feng is leading a broad effort from the Tan-Yang Center to create new models of autism using CRISPR gene-editing tools. Using these models he is examining the cellular, molecular, and behavioral outcome of monogenic mutations linked to autism, and aims to identify promising therapeutic avenues.

Human Studies

Rebecca Saxe is leading the Tan-Yang Center’s effort to characterize the brain regions and networks that are impacted by ASD, and to robustly test the clinical relevance of observed brain differences.

John Gabrieli is embracing the strengths of individuals diagnosed with ASD by researching their “affinities,” or strong passions for a specific topic, to examine the reward circuitry and language networks in the brain. His team is studying whether affinities can elicit “typical” activation in regions of the brain that are sometimes assumed to not be engaged in autism.

Gut-Brain Connection

Polina Anikeeva is developing new tools to rigorously examine how gastrointestinal dysfunction can arise in ASD and to better understand the links between the enteric (gut) nervous system and central nervous system.

Gene Therapy

The Tan-Yang Center is pioneering gene therapy approaches to ASD using CRISPR editing systems. This effort is led by Feng Zhang, who pioneered CRISPR gene editing in mammalian cells. The center is developing new methods for delivery and novel forms of gene therapy that could potentially provide treatment options for those living with autism.