Jake’s mice: Searching for answers to the puzzle of autism

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Jake Litvag leaned in for a more in-depth look as a lab mouse scurried round an enclosure, stopping to smell a big block.

“Hello, Jakob 1. I’m Jake,” the 16-year-old mentioned, naming the little furry creature engineered to have the identical genetic abnormality he has.

That mouse and its lab-grown family are the primary on the earth to reflect the lacking gene that causes Jake’s autism. Scientists at Washington College in St. Louis bred the mice, and grew stem cells derived from Jake’s blood, to review and discover methods to deal with his uncommon dysfunction – and search for solutions to the bigger puzzle of autism.

Jake’s household raised cash for the early analysis, which scientists then parlayed right into a $4 million grant from the Nationwide Institutes of Well being to delve extra deeply into Jake’s gene, one in all greater than 100 implicated in autism. They hope to seek out “factors of convergence” that would sometime assist individuals with all types of the neurodevelopmental situation affecting one in 44 U.S. youngsters.

Jake is aware of he impressed their work. And that’s helped him see autism as one thing to be pleased with relatively than one thing that makes him totally different from different youngsters. His mother and father, Joe and Lisa Litvag, figured assembly the scientists – and the mice – would present him firsthand what he had introduced into being.

“Oh wow. Cool!” Jake mentioned as he watched a mouse climb down a pole whereas others scampered in a bin.

Strolling out of the lab, tears welled up in Lisa Litvag’s eyes as she thought in regards to the language inside her son’s cells serving to different youngsters.

“We’re deeply proud and humbled to be a part of this,” mentioned Joe Litvag. “What can we stay this life for? It’s in the end to attempt to, in a method, form or kind, be of service to others.”


The Litvags realized early on that Jake wasn’t reaching childhood milestones. He couldn’t stroll with out help till he was 4. He struggled to string sentences collectively in first grade.

At first, nobody might pin down why. Jake had a mixture of totally different traits. He was hyperactive and impulsive but additionally social, heat and humorous. It took till he was 5 to get a agency analysis of autism.

Round that point, the Litvags heard that youngster psychiatrist Dr. John Constantino, an skilled on the genetic underpinnings of autism, was giving a chat on the Saint Louis Science Middle. They determined to go within the hopes of assembly him. They did, and he started seeing Jake as a affected person.

About 5 years later, Constantino proposed genetic testing. It revealed the lacking copy of the MYT1L gene believed to trigger one out of each 10,000 to 50,000 autism circumstances. Having an additional copy could cause schizophrenia.

The discovering introduced the household peace. They’d heard a number of individuals say autism was largely brought on by exterior components, like delivery trauma. “For a very long time,” Lisa Litvag mentioned, “I assumed it was one thing that I did.”

Really, a massive multinational research means that as much as 80% of the chance for autism will be traced to inherited genes.

“One of many large issues it did for us as a household is it made us notice that it’s nothing that we did fallacious,” Joe Litvag mentioned. “It’s simply that persons are born on a regular basis” with genetic variations.

The couple, whose youthful son Jordan doesn’t have the situation, talked brazenly with Jake about his autism and tried to bolster his shallowness when he fearful about being seen as totally different. They despatched him to a small non-public faculty that tailors its curriculum to every youngster’s studying skills. They usually inspired his social tendencies, cheering him on when he and a few classmates fashioned a band, the Snakes.

“We by no means wished him to really feel there was disgrace round his analysis,” Lisa Litvag mentioned. “We continued to sort of reinforce that this can be a superpower, you might be particular, you might be superior … and since you have got autism, there are items you need to give different individuals.”


When Constantino recommended finding out the little-understood MYT1L gene, the Litvags enthusiastically agreed to assist. Constantino – who’s on the native board of a gaggle they’ve lengthy been lively in referred to as Autism Speaks – requested in the event that they’d be excited about elevating cash for early analysis.

Joe Litvag, an government within the stay music trade, and Lisa Litvag, a accomplice in a advertising agency, reached out to household and pals and raised the $70,000 wanted in about six months.

With half the cash, researcher Kristen Kroll and her staff reprogrammed cells from Jake’s blood into “induced pluripotent stem cells,” which will be prodded into changing into numerous cell sorts. With the opposite half, scientist Joseph Dougherty and his staff adopted the blueprint of Jake’s genome and induced his mutation in mice utilizing the gene-editing software CRISPR.

Just like the individuals they’re meant to mannequin, mice with the mutation tended to be extra hyperactive than siblings with out it, operating round their cages rather more. They had been nonetheless typically heavier, particularly the primary technology of mice. They’d barely smaller brains and rather less of the white matter that speeds communication between totally different mind areas.

Since beginning the analysis about three years in the past, scientists have bred round 100 mice with Jake’s mutation and at the moment are utilizing the great-great grandchildren of the primary one they engineered. They lately revealed in regards to the mice within the journal Neuron.

Whereas scientists can’t return and see how Jake’s mind developed, Dougherty mentioned, mice enable them to observe the mutation play out by generations.


Dougherty and his colleagues hope what they find out about how MYT1L capabilities in the end results in medicines or gene therapies that enhance and even appropriate the issues the mutation causes.

They’re sharing their findings with scientists finding out different autism-causing genes or attempting to determine how numerous genes work collectively to trigger the situation. In response to the Simons Basis Autism Analysis Initiative, greater than 100 genes have sturdy proof linking them to autism and a rising listing comprises a number of hundred extra genes regarded as linked to the situation.

In circumstances the place autism is brought on by a single gene, Dougherty mentioned that gene most likely does many issues to mind growth. A key to understanding autism total is to seek out one or two issues shared throughout totally different types of autism -– which might then be targets for remedy. Although not everybody with autism needs remedy, Dougherty mentioned it might assist those that do.

Because the analysis started, Dougherty has been writing notes to the Litvags explaining the most recent discoveries. However as a lab scientist, he’s largely faraway from the individuals sparking the analysis and first met the household after they had been invited by the varsity to go to in December.

After assembly the mice, they stopped into one other lab, the place Jake peered by a microscope at his blue-stained stem cells.

“That’s me! That’s cool stuff. I by no means noticed something like that in my life,” he mentioned, stepping again to lean into his dad, who pulled him shut.

Dougherty used the go to as a chance to share some information, a present of kinds that he wished to inform the household in particular person.

The lacking gene doesn’t appear to shorten life. The mice stay 2 to three years, the identical as their siblings.

“So, a traditional life span?” Joe Litvag requested hopefully.

“Sure,” Dougherty answered. “So far as we will inform, similar. I do know that’s a giant aid, too.”

Joe Litvag turned to his son. “So Jake, possibly you’ll stay to be 100.”

“I will probably be 112!” Jake replied with a smile.


The Related Press Well being and Science Division receives help from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Division of Science Schooling. The AP is solely answerable for all content material.

Laura Ungar, The Related Press

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