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‘It’s like Star Wars’: The potential future of gene-editing for autism treatment

Dr. John Constantino (left) and Steve Houston (right) talked about understanding autism and the latest research in the diagnosis and treatment of it.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. John Constantino (left) and Steve Houston (right) talked about understanding autism and the latest research in the diagnosis and treatment of it.

April is National Autism Awareness Month. On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked about the prevalence of autism and discussed the latest research in the diagnosis and treatment of autism.

“Autism has always been with us,” Dr. John Constantino, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Washington University, said. He noted that greater recognition of autism has allowed for better implementation of education programs instead of misdiagnosing those with autism.

Also joining the discussion was Steve Houston, president of Compass Communications, LLC. Houston is a father to a 22-year-old son with autism.

Children on the autism spectrum vary in their symptoms, such as behavior issues, being withdrawn or sensitivity to sensory input.

“But the one thread that seems to hit everyone on the spectrum is [socializing],” Houston said. “My son, John, just struggles to socialize. You can see him try to do it, and then you’ll just see it stolen by autism.”

Houston explained how advancement in research, such as the unlocking of the genetic code, helped doctors figure out his son’s condition.

Constantino said that increased awareness and advancement in research within the last five years has led to accurate diagnosis and identifying the causes of autism.

“About one-third of all cases of autism spectrum disorders are now able to be identified with respect to a major genetic cause,” he said. Many insurance companies are now mostly or fully covering the costs of treatment for genetically caused autism, Constantino said.

Constantino said gene-editing is something that is looked at as potentially being able to treat autism.

“The way it works is that a virus is introduced into a body, it goes into all the cells in the body and it injects the machinery to cut out the wrong genetic code and insert the correct genetic code,” he said. “It’s like ‘Star Wars.’” But the process is still years away from being effective.

Constantino is asking families participate in Washington University’s web surveysto gather information about the incidence of autism in families.

“Right now we’re trying to count and track how autism is transmitted to the subsequent generation,” he said. The data will provide more insights into the kinds of autism that can occur when multiple genetic factors come into play.

Houston said he is excited about the advancements, but he’s “not talking about cures at this point.” His main focus right now is furthering people’s understanding and awareness of autism.

“If I could give my son a pill that would cure him of his autism, I would certainly do so. But I really would miss the John that’s changed me,” Houston said. “When you have a child with a developmental disability, it opens you up to so much more about life.”

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St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.