The Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) today announced the launch of SPARK, an online research initiative designed to become the largest autism study ever undertaken in the United States. SPARK, which stands for Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge, will collect information and DNA for genetic analysis from 50,000 individuals with autism — and their families — to advance our understanding of the condition’s causes and accelerate the development of new treatments and supports.
Autism is already known to have a strong genetic component. To date, approximately 50 genes have been identified that almost certainly play a role in autism, and researchers estimate that an additional 300 or more are involved. By studying these genes, associated biological mechanisms and the interactions of environmental factors with genes, researchers can better understand the condition’s causes and link them to the spectrum of symptoms, skills and challenges of those affected.
“Knowledge is power, and SPARK was created because we simply haven’t learned enough about the genetics and other possible causes of autism,” says Wendy Chung, SPARK’s principal investigator and director of clinical research at SFARI. “SPARK will help researchers make new discoveries that will ultimately lead to the development of new supports and treatments to improve the lives of people living with challenges. Together, we can ‘spark’ a movement in autism research.”
SPARK aims to speed up autism research by inviting participants from this large, diverse autism community, including individuals of both sexes and all ages, backgrounds, races, geographic locations and socioeconomic situations with a professional diagnosis of autism. The initiative catalyzes research by creating long-term access to a large number of study participants for whom detailed genomic, medical and behavioral information will be available. SPARK will connect participants to researchers, offering them the unique opportunity to impact the future of autism research by joining any of the multiple studies offered through SPARK. SPARK will also take feedback from individuals with autism and their parents to develop a robust research agenda that is meaningful for these families.
This new initiative is funded and centrally coordinated by SFARI. A total of 21 university-affiliated clinical sites and numerous national and local autism community organizations across the U.S. are partnering with SFARI to help recruit participants and spread the word about this landmark study. De-identified genetic and phenotypic data will be made available to any qualified researcher throughout the duration of the project, and researchers will have the opportunity to contact participants for potential enrollment in their research and clinical studies.
“A major goal of SPARK is to accelerate clinical research in autism by providing a large resource to the entire research community,” says Pamela Feliciano, scientific director of SPARK and senior scientist at SFARI. “All qualified researchers will be able to access SPARK genomic, medical and behavioral data and recruit for their studies from SPARK as soon as possible.”
Anyone interested in learning more about SPARK or in participating can visit www.SPARKforAutism.org.