A simple urine test detected one out of three children with autism spectrum disorder in a new study, and researchers say the test could result in earlier diagnosis and potentially lead to customized treatments for a subset of children with elevated levels of certain compounds in their urine.
The study included 76 boys from Oregon and Washington — 44 with an autism spectrum disorder and 32 without a developmental disorder.
Nick Heyer, a senior research scientist at Battelle’s Seattle lab, said he believes the research can be reproduced on a larger scale and hopefully lead to a widely available screening test for babies.
“If it can detect increased risk of autism at age 1, that would be fantastic,” he said. “It’s the only biomarker (test) I’m aware of that could be done noninvasively and fairly inexpensively. I’m really pretty optimistic and excited about getting it retested.”
Heyer said he is trying to incorporate the urine test into a study of 1,200 pregnant mothers who already have other autistic children. The study would follow the new infants’ development through age 3. He’s also working with a lab in South Korea to replicate the study in a larger group.
The urine test, which detects elevated levels of compounds called porphyrins, costs $50 to $100. Heyer said the test would become less expensive if used frequently as a way to screen babies.
James Woods, a researcher at the University of Washington who worked on the project with Battelle researchers, noted that everybody has the compounds in their urine, but the levels were clearly higher in certain children in the study. Also, although the study included only boys (who are much more likely to have autism than girls), Woods said that the test would likely work for both genders based on other research.
Heyer noted that although there’s been speculation that elevated porphyrin levels are related to mercury exposure in autistic children, the research team found no link to increased exposure to mercury. This leaves the question open of why the compounds are higher in some children with autism.