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Autism researchers join exploratory group for MUHC precision medicine effort

COLUMBIA, MO (March 6, 2017) — Imagine receiving a life-changing diagnosis: Cancer. Autism. Heart disease. Now imagine that your physician could use your individual genome, medical history and biology – captured as data in your electronic health records – to generate treatment options specific to your genetics, environment and lifestyle.

While ambitious, this personalized approach to clinical treatment and prevention of diseases is precisely the goal of a movement known as precision medicine.

A group of four major disease specialists from the MU School of Medicine, in collaboration with Cerner Corporation and the Tiger institute for Health Innovation, is exploring ways to develop precision medicine capabilities using existing genetic sequencing resources, bioinformatics analysis and technology at University of Missouri.

In addition to cardiovascular disease, cancer and genetic sequencing, specialists at MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders will develop a comprehensive plan to combine available research data with cutting-edge analytics to further research into links between genetics, behaviors, medications, biological differences and symptoms in individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

Neurologist Dr. David Beversdorf is leading the Thompson Center’s strategic research plan for precision medicine with pediatrician and geneticist Dr. Judith Miles.

“We will propose how our research strengths and current assets at the Thompson Center fit together for an achievable early-stage project, as well as guidance for future external funding opportunities,” Beversdorf said. “With the volume and outstanding quality of research data  – including genetics and symptom-related data – at the Thompson Center, we are poised to make a huge impact on precision medicine in our field, and ultimately in the lives our patients.”

The Thompson Center has already set precedent in this area with collaborations between Dr. Miles and several researchers in MU’s College of Engineering. In one recent study, she worked with Dr. Ye Duan to correlate facial structure differences to groups of clinical symptoms in children with autism. In another, Miles and Dr. Gang Yao linked a delay in the reflex of a child’s pupil to light with an increased autism risk, leading to the development of a noninvasive device to measure the reflex on very young children as a screening tool. A third investigation into genetic data and symptom information by Miles, Thompson Center Executive Director Dr. Stephen Kanne and MU Informatics Institute Director Dr. Chi-Ren Shyu, is under way in an attempt to find genetic variations that correlate to the presence and severity of autism symptoms.

In addition, one of Beversdorf’s primary research areas is measurable biological differences, called biomarkers, and how they are linked with autism risk and symptoms. He also led a North American consortium that published guidance on the potential for integrating health care data and various biological, behavioral and genetic information at a national level.

The other specialties involved in the precision medicine effort at MU are equally suited to build on existing research infrastructure to take research in their fields beyond traditional trial-and-error methods.

With institutional support and the technological capacity available through strategic partnerships with Cerner and the Tiger Institute, precision medicine has the potential to propel MU into the future of personalized care, Kanne said.

“The advanced analytical approaches to the wealth of health care data we have available at our center, and across MU Health Care, have the potential to change the lives of patients in these fields,” Kanne said. “It’s exciting to think about the opportunities ahead.”