Scientists have identified 43 genes associated with risk for both autism and cancer. This discovery could lead to the development of treatments for both conditions if the underlying mechanisms behind these genes are the same, according to a new study by the University of California (UC) Davis MIND Institute and Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“This striking coincidence of a remarkably large number of genes implicated in both autism spectrum disorder and cancers has not been previously highlighted in the scientific literature,” said Jacqueline Crawley, MIND Institute distinguished professor and endowed chair.
“Potentially common biological mechanisms suggest that it may be possible to repurpose drug treatments for cancer as potential therapeutics for neurodevelopmental disorders.”
Crawley collaborated on the work with professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Wolf-Dietrich Heyer, who is affiliated with the Cancer Center and Janine LaSalle, professor of medical microbiology and immunology, who is associated with the MIND Institute.
“It may be possible to repurpose available cancer drugs with reasonable safety profiles as targeted treatments for ASD,” the authors write in the journal Trends in Genetics.
“Stratifying individuals with ASD who harbor a risk gene for autism that is also a risk gene for cancer may enable therapeutic development of personalized medicines based on the specific causal mutation.”
Included in the dozens of genes implicated in both cancer and autism are genes for relatively rare syndromes, such as Rett syndrome and tuberous sclerosis, in which patients experience a wide variety of physical and neurological symptoms, including intellectual disability, as well as some of the communication deficits often found in autism.
So what does tumor cell growth have in common with synapse formation and brain development?
“Errors associated with genome maintenance during fetal life may occur at critical time periods for [brain development] resulting in neurodevelopmental disorders,” said Heyer, “whereas errors more commonly occur during adult life in cell types susceptible to tumors.”
Considerable value can be gained from a new focus on understanding the genetic commonalities of autisms and cancers. The authors note that since autism encompasses a broad range of causes, symptoms, and outcomes — similar to different types of cancers — it is also referred to in the plural, as “autisms.”
The study, titled “Autism and Cancer Shared Risk Genes, Pathways and Drug Targets,” is published online in Trends in Genetics, a Cell Symposia publication.