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Gut microbe study shows promise as a potential treatment for autism

January 23, 2017

The key to fighting autism might lie not in the mind, but in the gut.

A team led by Arizona State University researchers is taking a novel approach in the search for effective autism treatments by focusing on improving the gut microbiome through fecal microbial transplants.

Early results are promising, but additional testing is required before an FDA-approved therapy would be available or recommended to the public.

The team — including collaborators from Northern Arizona University, Ohio State University and the University of Minnesota — completed a study involving 18 participants with autism spectrum disorders who ranged in age from 7 to 16 years old. The results were recently published in the journal Microbiome.

Participants underwent a 10-week treatment program involving antibiotics, a bowel cleanse and daily fecal microbial transplants over eight weeks. Past ASU research has shown ties between autism symptoms and the composition and diversity of a person’s gut microbes.

The treatment program showed long-term benefits, including an average 80 percent improvement of gastrointestinal symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorders and 20-25 percent improvement in autism behaviors, including improved social skills and better sleep habits.

“The results are very compelling,” said James Adams, ASU President’s Professor of materials science and engineering and one of the team leaders. “We completed a Phase 1 trial demonstrating safety and efficacy, but recommending such treatment and bringing it to market requires Phase 2 and Phase 3 trials.

“We look forward to continuing research on this treatment method with a larger, placebo-controlled trial in the future.”

Gut microbe study infographic

The ASU team is led by Adams, Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown and Dae-Wook Kang. Adams and Krajmalnik-Brown are professors at ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Krajmalnik-Brown and Kang are researchers at Biodesign Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology.

How it works and what’s next

Fecal microbial transplants involve the transfer of live gut bacteria from a healthy donor to a recipient. The donor materials contain around 1,000 different species of gut bacteria that act like a broad-spectrum probiotic treatment to restore normal gut bacteria in recipients.

“We saw a big increase in microbe diversity and a big increase in certain bacteria, especially Prevotella, which we previously found was low in children with autism spectrum disorders,” Kang said.

The microbes added through the treatment program remained after treatment stopped.

“That is compelling, because not only did we provide good microbes, but the microbes we provided changed the gut environment in a way that helped the host recruit beneficial microbes and allowed them to stay around,” Krajmalnik-Brown said.

A placebo-controlled trial will help the team evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment.

The researchers caution families from attempting to replicate the treatment on their own.

“Although we see promise in this treatment, it is important that parents and children consult their physicians,” Krajmalnik-Brown said. “Improper techniques can result in severe gastrointestinal infection.”

 

The research team included Greg Caporaso of Northern Arizona University and Matthew Sullivan from Ohio State University. The University of Minnesota provided the microbial transplant material. The work was funded through the Arizona Board of Regents, the Autism Research Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The research team is seeking additional funding to launch a larger clinical trial. For more information on related research projects at ASU, visit https://autism.asu.edu/ or http://krajmalnik.environmentalbiotechnology.org/.

Leslie Minton

Media Relations Manager , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

480-727-4294

 
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Risk is not just a four-letter word

As technology leaps forward, how do we make sure it will build a better world?
ASU Risk Innovation Lab works to find new ways to thrive in a risky world.
ASU prof: Risk can make life worth living, but we must learn to navigate it.
January 23, 2017

Andrew Maynard, director of ASU's Risk Innovation Lab, talks about how we can tackle challenges by framing them as values

Most people don't like talking about risk. Andrew Maynard is an exception.

As a professor at ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the director of ASU's Risk Innovation Lab, he thinks about risk innovation and the responsible development and use of technologies for a living.

Are we thinking enough about emerging technologies? Does innovation have a dark side? Is there a risk in not taking a risk? In this KEDtalk, Maynard tries to find answers to these pertinent questions and how we can all tackle risk challenges by framing them as values.

 

Maynard's talk is part of the ASU KEDtalks series. Short for Knowledge Enterprise Development talks, KEDtalks aim to spark ideas, indulge curiosity, and inspire action by highlighting ASU scientists, humanists, social scientists and artists who are driven to find solutions to the universe’s grandest challenges. Tune in monthly to research.asu.edu/kedtalks to discover how the next educational revolution will come about, whether space is the next economic frontier and more.

 

Top photo by Marissa Huth

Media projects manager , Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development