Pitt loses national autism grant
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Last week, the National Institutes of Health announced $100 million in funding for autism research over the next five years.
Lost in its glowing description of the new awards, though, was the fact that five of the federal government's six Autism Centers of Excellence, including one at the University of Pittsburgh, failed to get renewal funding, which will cost them about $15 million each over the next five years.
Besides Pitt's Center for Excellence in Autism Research, the other centers that lost out in the fiercely competitive application process were at Yale University, the University of California at San Diego, the University of Washington and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Even though the amount of autism research money handed out by the NIH is roughly the same as in the previous five-year cycle, some researchers said the redistribution will not only hurt the centers that lost out, but could damage autism research overall.
Marlene Behrmann, a noted autism researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who gets her research funding from private sources, said one of the goals of setting up the centers for excellence was to establish large-scale, ongoing studies that often take years to produce results.
Cutting funding at those centers now doesn't seem to make sense, she said.
"It's not clear why the NIH has done this, because these centers have excellent track records by some of the best researchers in the field. It's unsettling that these funds are being pulled just when important findings are about to percolate to the surface."
Nancy Minshew, director of the Pitt center, was in Europe and unavailable for comment, and no other Pitt officials could be reached to analyze the impact the money loss will have on the center, its staffing or its ongoing research projects.
Kevin Pelphrey, an autism scientist at Yale who got one of the new NIH grants, said he knows the funding cuts will be devastating to the five centers.
"The autism community is probably stunned this week at how a lot of the important work at places like Pitt wasn't renewed," he said. "Hopefully there will be some kind of new NIH funding that will allow some of the work to continue."
Marcel Just, a CMU autism researcher who has received money from the Pitt center, put a somewhat more optimistic spin on the development.
"Pittsburgh has one of the largest, most prominent groups of autism brain imaging researchers in the world, funded by a variety of sources, continuously making discoveries and refining our understanding of autism," he said in an email. "Specific grants come and go but the mission continues, particularly as the scientific goal comes within reach."
The NIH autism research money is divided between centers of excellence and somewhat more temporary networks of institutions that carry out specific projects.
In the latest round of funding, NIH cut back from six centers to just three, but increased the number of research networks getting money from five to six.
The only center of excellence to get a renewal was the University of California at Los Angeles, which is using brain imaging to chart the development of children with different genetic risk factors for autism, which is characterized by repetitive behaviors, obsessive interests and social awkwardness.
The NIH also designated two new centers, at Emory University in Atlanta and at Boston University. The Emory center is headed by high-profile researcher Ami Klin, who moved there from Yale, and will study the social development of children at risk for autism from the time they are a month old. The Boston University center, headed by Helen Tager-Flusberg, will focus on the lack of speech that afflicts many children with autism and how to overcome that.
The Pitt center has been known for studying siblings of children with autism to chart their mental and social development, and for brain imaging of high-functioning autistic adults.
Carnegie Mellon's Ms. Behrmann, who holds a doctorate in psychology from the University of Toronto, said part of her concern over the impact on existing centers is that they form a kind of basic infrastructure for long-term research.
"We are so far from understanding exactly what gives rise to autism," she said. "We don't fully understand it from a genetic standpoint, and we are decades away from having a watertight elucidation of the fundamental mechanisms, and to address some of these questions, we're going to need very large-scale studies that can only be done in the context of these large centers."
Mr. Pelphrey, who earned his psychology doctorate at the University of North Carolina and once taught at Carnegie Mellon, said many of the new NIH grants seemed to be aimed at studying gender differences in autism as well as genetic analysis and speech problems.
His own grant is designed to do brain imaging of girls diagnosed with autism to find how their behaviors and brain function differ from those of boys, who dominate the autism rolls.
Robert Bock, an NIH spokesman, said the agency considers the research application process confidential and would not comment on why it chose one set of scientists over another.
But Mr. Pelphrey said the NIH uses a scoring system for each application, and he understood that the number of applications for research funds had doubled or tripled from last time, and was so competitive that half the applications didn't even receive a score.
"This is the hardest time anyone has known for federal research funding," he said. "When I talk to some of my older colleagues, they said they never would have made it in today's climate, because in some fields only about the top 6 percent of all applications get funded."
First Published September 8, 2012 12:00 am