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Autism in the News: Diminished Cancer Rates, Brain Scans, and Backpacks

First up in our weekly news roundup, a story that stands in direct opposition to one we ran a few weeks back: contrary to a recent report citing increased risk of cancer amongst those with autism, a new study is claiming that individuals diagnosed with autism are 66% less likely to get cancer in their lifetimes. While they do have far more gene mutations that can lead to cancer, experts believe there might be a natural protector against cancer found in those with autism, which is especially strong in teenagers.

According to researchers at the University of Iowa, this research could shed light on both cancer and autism.  Benjamin Darbro, of the University of Iowa, said: “It’s a very provocative result that makes sense on one level and is extremely perplexing on another.”  He and his team looked at the records of 1,837 patients with autism and compared these to 9,336 patients with any other diagnosis, to see what proportion of each group had been diagnosed with cancer. While 3.9% of patients without autism had cancer, that figure rose when those with autism were added to the group.

Now, moving on to the increased effort to improve our ability to scan for autism, many doctors and scientists believe they would have the means to scan for autism if they had reliable means to discover certain abnormalities, what they call biomarkers. The new issue of Nature Communications reports of a recent study that found two such biomarkers that could be used in future work. The technology, principally developed at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International in Kyoto, Japan, with the major contributions from three co-authors at Brown University, is a computer algorithm called a “classifier” because it can classify sets of subjects — those with an autism spectrum disorder and those without — based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scan.

Through analyzing thousands of brain connections in those individuals both with and without autism, the software found 16 key interregional functional connections that allowed it to tell, with high accuracy, who had been traditionally diagnosed with autism and who had not. We’ll be monitoring this development to see if these biomarkers gain traction in general medical practices.

Finally, a group of University of Michigan entrepreneurship students have designed a new type of backpack specifically designed for children with autism, called the Nessel Pack that is designed to help them in their transition from the home to school. “We had hundreds of meetings with parents, occupational therapists, teachers, and leaders in the autism community to learn what exactly we could do to most benefit the students,” graduating senior Martha Pietruszewski, the company’s CEO, said. 

The students have experienced such a strong outpouring from the community in their area that they are looking to expand the business to a nationwide operation.