Individuals with ASD Have More Oncogene mutations, Less Cancer
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This editorial also appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of ARI's Autism Research Review International newsletter.

Individuals with autism have an elevated number of mutations in genes associated with cancer but are less likely than other people to develop the disease, a new study reports.

In the study, Benjamin Darbro and colleagues analyzed large genomic databases containing information on individuals with autism. They found that these individuals had significantly higher rates of DNA variation in cancer-promoting oncogenes than people without autism.

Next, the researchers used the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics’ electronic medical record (EMR) to compare 1,837 patients with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to 9,336 patients with other diagnoses. They found that only 1.3% of patients with ASD had received a cancer diagnosis, compared to 3.9% of the controls.

The difference was even more marked in younger patients: The odds of having cancer were reduced by 94% in individuals with ASD under 14 years of age compared to controls in the same age range. This protective effect held true for both males and females.

Darbro comments, “The overlap in genes between those known to promote cancer and those implicated in syndromic neurodevelopmental disorders is not new, but what we’ve shown is that this overlap is much broader at the genetic level than previously known and that, somehow, it may translate into a lower risk of cancer.”

He and his team conclude, “Neurodevelopment and oncogenesis are multi-step processes, and it is possible that signaling through the same cellular proliferation pathways can have different effects depending on embryological timing, as well as cell type and mitotic status.”

“Autism linked to increased oncogene mutations but decreased cancer rate,” Benjamin W. Darbro, Rohini Singh, M. Bridget Zimmerman, Vinit B. Mahajan, and Alexander G. Bassuk, PLOS ONE, March 2, 2016 (online). Address: Benjamin Darbro, [email protected]

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“Patients with autism have increased mutations in genes that drive cancer but decreased rates of cancer,” news release, University of Iowa, April 7, 2016.