Teaming up with Google to find autism cause

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(CNN) – The cause of autism is still unknown, but researchers hope harnessing the power of Google will help them solve this neurodevelopmental puzzle.

The research and advocacy group Autism Speaks announced Tuesday they are collaborating with the Google Cloud Platform to build the largest autism genome database to date. The collaboration, known as The Autism Speaks Ten Thousand Genomes Program (AUT10K), will combine extensive DNA databases with cloud storage technology, in hopes of “moving mountains” in autism research, according to a press release.

Autism Speaks believes the AUT10K program holds the potential to radically transform ASD genomics research. “Working with Google is a game-changer,” said Rob Ring, who is the organization’s chief science officer.

This collaboration is part of a larger movement in the medical field to use big data to speed research efforts. IBM’s supercomputer Watson, for instance, is helping oncologists find treatments for a rare aggressive brain cancer in partnership with the New York Genome Center.

Autism Speaks has already donated 12,000 DNA samples, which members describe as the “the largest private collection” with diagnostic and specific genetic information. The organization says the collaboration with Google will allow them provide researchers access to what will eventually be huge amounts of data. This, in turn, should help researchers find connections between patients faster.

Zachary Warren, director of Vanderbilt University’s autism research institute,  says in order to under the vast developmental and behavioral differences linked to ASD, more powerful platforms to analyze genetic data are needed.

“Only by understanding autism risk can we begin to develop treatments that target not just the symptoms but the root causes of autism spectrum disorder,” his colleague and genetic autism researcher Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele said in agreement.

The number of children with autism has continued to go up over the past decades, as have the costs for caring for someone with ASD.

Earlier this year, the CDC reported that 1 in 68 children in the United States has autism.  A new study, published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, estimates the lifetime cost of supporting an individual with ASD can be up to $2.4 million.

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