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Clarkson researchers appeal to public to fund autism research

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POTSDAM — For Alisa G. Woods, investigating the causes of autism is more than academic research — it is a labor of love.

That is why Ms. Woods, a Clarkson University chemistry and biomolecular science professor, is using an unconventional method to raise money for research into the cause of autism.

Ms. Woods has turned to an Internet fundraising tool, RocketHub, to lobby the public for donations. She is trying to raise $5,500 for software to assist in her work, which could result in a diagnostic tool for the disease.

“We decided we needed a jump-start,” she said. “I thought this was perfect, this was something we can do so we don’t have to stop our work.”

For Ms. Woods and her husband and research partner, Costel C. Darie, the cause hits close to home.

“We’re in an autism epidemic, and my son has autism,” she said. “My son really benefited from early treatment. That’s the key. We’ve got to find a way to detect this earlier.”

The research is based on finding a protein marker that causes autism.

Because Clarkson is not attached to an academic medical center, Ms. Woods said, it is difficult to persuade traditional funding agencies to underwrite her work.

“We get reviews back that say we’re not in a major medical center, how can we do this, but we have all the major instruments,” she said. “We don’t need to be in a major medical center to do that.”

The stalled economy has tightened competition for a stagnant — or shrinking — pool of research money, which is why Ms. Woods is asking the public to open wallets for what she says is promising research.

“Grant funding is at an all-time low for various organizations,” she said. “We put in application to many organizations that would normally fund this, but got turned down.”

Saliva and blood samples are taken from autistic patients, some in Plattsburgh, and sent to the Clarkson laboratory, where they are analyzed using a method called mass spectrometry. Ms. Woods is trying to raise the money for software to process the results.

“It is very expensive because it is high-end software,” she said. “A mass spectrometer generates a huge amount of data. The software can do it in a few seconds and eliminates human error.”

With the machine, Ms. Woods can continue the research and hopefully attract more grants.

“We need to counteract the perception that Clarkson is an engineering school that can’t do biomedical research,” she said. “We want the software so we can generate more data, so we can apply for grants and we can be self-sustaining.”

When a protein biomarker is found for autism, it could have huge impact on the way the disease is diagnosed and treated, said Mrs. Woods.

“The biomarkers can do a lot of other things: you can use them to understand what is causing autism. Brain proteins can be reflected in blood and saliva,” she said. “We may be able to understand sub-types of autism. Biomarkers could be used as a treatment monitoring strategy. You can measure the proteins and say whether a treatment is probably working. There’s a bunch of uses for them.”

A breakthrough could help children in the north country and other under-served areas where conditions like autism can go undiagnosed late into childhood.

“When I first came here, it was noticeable to me that people weren’t getting diagnosed, they didn’t have access to information, the health care system here has a lot of holes in it,” Ms. Woods said. “A biological test would cut through that, if we created a standard that all kids get tested at a certain age.”

“This kind of test is already used for cystic fibrosis in infants. If we can find out what the markers are, we can just add them to the same screen,” she said.

RocketHub is a Harlem-based Internet crowdfunding tool, allowing Mrs. Woods and her partners to raise money from around the world for a small commission fee.

So far, the campaign has more than 69 donors and raised $4,836. The fundraiser ends on Saturday.

For more information, or to donate, visit http://www.rockethub.com/projects/11806-autism-and-protein-markers#description-tab.

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