OHSU researchers join SPARK, nation’s largest autism research study

Drs. Eric Fombonne, Brian O'Roak and Lark Huang-Storms aim to accelerate autism research and speed discovery of treatments

April 21, 2016

OHSU researchers today helped launch SPARK, an online research initiative designed to become the largest autism study ever undertaken in the United States. 

Sponsored by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), SPARK will collect information and DNA for genetic analysis from 50,000 individuals with autism – and their families – in a web-based registry to advance understanding of the causes of this condition and to accelerate discovery of supports and treatments.

Eric FombonneOHSU is one of a select group of 21 research institutions across the nation chosen by SFARI to assist with recruitment, underscoring OHSU's strength in autism and genetics research.

In Oregon, the SPARK effort is led by Eric Fombonnne, M.D., professor of psychiatry, and Brian O'Roak, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular and medical genetics, and their teams in the OHSU School of Medicine.

SPARK aims to speed up autism research by inviting participation from the large, diverse autism community, with the goal of including individuals with a professional diagnosis of autism of both sexes and all ages, backgrounds, races, geographic locations and socioeconomic situations. 

SPARK will connect participants to researchers, offering participants the unique opportunity to impact the future of autism research. The initiative creates large-scale access to study participants whose DNA may be selectively analyzed for a specific scientific question of interest. 

"We are incredibly excited to be a part of SPARK and connect individuals and families in communities across Oregon to this large-scale effort that promises to catalyze autism research," said Dr. Fombonne. 

Dr. Fombonne, an internationally-known researcher in the epidemiology of autism, developed clinical and research programs in France, the United Kingdom and Canada before coming to OHSU. Dr. Fombonne has published more than 300 articles in peer-reviewed journals and is on the editorial board of several journals in the field of autism and child psychiatry. He is a member of several scientific review committees and advisory boards.

Brian O'RoakDr. O'Roak's accomplishments include groundbreaking research into the genetic basis of neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. Dr. O'Roak and fellow researchers pioneered a family-based, genome-sequencing model that has begun unraveling the genetic mystery of autism. Read about the study, published in the journal Nature, and a related study published in Nature Communications.

"When I started my career a decade ago, we were running studies with hundreds of participants," said Dr. O'Roak. "As we moved to thousands, the complexities of autism genetics began to unravel. By partnering with 50,000 families, we will gain unprecedented insights into the genetic and non-genetic factors that underlie autism."

In 2015, Dr. O'Roak was awarded the prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship and Klingenstein-Simons Fellowships, and the International Society for Autism Research's Young Investigator Award.

Lark Huang-StormsLark Huang-Storms, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics in the OHSU School of Medicine, is a licensed psychologist who provides assessment and treatment around complex emotional, behavioral and neurodevelopmental challenges. Over the past decades, she has had the privilege of working in medical and educational settings with thousands of individuals with ASD from toddlerhood through adulthood. She became the director of the OHSU Autism Program in 2013.

"As the director of the OHSU Autism Program, I meet many families who want to take part in research to help us better understand the amazing diversity and complexity of ASD," said Dr. Huang-Storms. "I'm excited that SPARK can connect them to this historic opportunity and link us to a dynamic community of families and scientists across the nation."

Learn more about SPARK, including how to participate, by visiting the SPARK-OHSU website.

Pictured: Dr. Fombonne (top), Dr. O'Roak, Dr. Huang-Storms

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