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Clinical and Translational Science Center

Clinical and Translational Science Center

NEWS | July 14, 2014

UC Davis professor receives award to develop preventive treatment for autism

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)

The Hartwell Foundation has presented an Individual Biomedical Research Award to Professor Judy A. Van de Water of the University of California, Davis, recognizing research that could affect nearly one in every four cases of autism among children in the U.S.

Judy Van de Water Judy Van de Water

Van de Water, an immunologist and professor of internal medicine in the UC Davis School of Medicine, is one of 11 scientists from throughout the U.S. selected to receive the award that recognizes early-stage, innovative and leading-edge biomedical research with the potential to benefit children in the United States.

Van de Water is an autism researcher affiliated with the UC Davis MIND Institute. She is the eighth UC Davis researcher selected for the honor since 2008. Awardees receive $100,000 direct costs each year for three years.

In 2013, Van de Water described how unique antibodies in the bloodstream of some pregnant mothers target proteins critical to the fetal brain development. The discovery represents the first definitive cause for a subset of cases of non-genetic causes of autism. Van de Water coined the term maternal autoantibody-related (MAR) autism to describe the 23 percent of autism cases associated with maternal autoantibodies.

Finding a way to target autoantibodies

Her research is focused on finding a way to target these autoantibodies to fetal brain proteins with antibody blocking peptides (smaller, synthetic segments of specific fetal brain protein).

“The availability of a therapy to prevent MAR autism has the potential to eliminate nearly one in four cases of autism among U.S. children. If successful, such a therapy will improve the quality of life for children who would have been affected, as well as their families, while also reducing the estimated $29 billion per year in societal cost currently incurred through autism therapies,” Van de Water said. 

The research would test the effectiveness of the peptides in blocking fetal exposure to the antibodies in a mouse model of MAR autism, while maintaining desired (normal) behavior in offspring. Early identification of the autoantibodies in the affected mother would allow for early medical interventions to limit fetal exposure to autoantibodies and the consequent risk of her child developing autism spectrum disorder.

Top Ten Center designation

In addition to the individual award, The Hartwell Foundation designated UC Davis as one of its Top Ten Centers for Biomedical Research for the fourth consecutive year. Other prominent institutions selected include University of Michigan, Duke University, Johns Hopkins University and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

In selecting each research center of excellence, The Hartwell Foundation takes into account the shared values the institution has with the Foundation relating to children's health, the presence of an associated medical school and biomedical engineering program, and the quality and scope of ongoing biomedical research. The Foundation also considers the institutional commitment to support collaboration, provide encouragement, and extend technical support to the investigator, especially as related to translational approaches and technology transfer that could promote rapid clinical application of research results.

“The Hartwell Foundation seeks to inspire innovation and achievement by offering individual researchers an opportunity to realize their professional goals. We believe that philanthropy is a serious responsibility and that wealth appropriately used is an essential mechanism for improving the state of mankind,” said Fred Dombrose, president of The Hartwell Foundation. “Through a unique and selective funding process, we provide financial support to stimulate discovery in early-stage biomedical research that we hope will benefit children of the United States. UC Davis has been a key partner with the foundation in accomplishing this goal.”

Video: Judy Van de Water discusses her research on MAR Autism .

In the Hartwell competition, nominees submit a detailed research proposal. A subset of nominees are personally interviewed and make a formal presentation of their proposed research. In selecting awardees, The Hartwell Foundation takes into account the nature of the proposed innovation, the extent to which a strategic or translational approach might promote rapid clinical application of research results, the supportive role and extent of collaboration in the proposed research, the institutional commitment to provide encouragement and technical support to the investigator, and the extent to which funding the investigator will make a difference.

About The Hartwell Foundation

Located in Memphis, Tenn., The Hartwell Foundaion seeks to inspire innovation and achievement by offering individual researchers an opportunity to realize their professional goals. The Foundation believes that philanthropy is a serious responsibility and that wealth appropriately used is an essential mechanism for improving the state of mankind. Through a unique and selective funding process, the Foundation provides financial support to stimulate discovery in early-stage biomedical research that has potential to benefit children of the United States. For more information about The Hartwell Foundation, visit www.thehartwellfoundation.org. 

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and about two dozen specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

More about the research: http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/publish/news/newsroom/7439

At the UC Davis MIND Institute, world-renowned scientists engage in collaborative, interdisciplinary research to find the causes of and develop treatments and cures for autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fragile X syndrome, 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, Down syndrome and other neurodevelopmental disorders. For more information, visit mindinstitute.ucdavis.edu