A research project by Google and Autism Speaks to sequence and study human genomes and seek a breakthrough for autism was officially launched today.
News of the partnership between the tech giant and the science and advocacy organization was first announced in June. The project aims to break new ground in understanding or treatment of autism, the developmental disorder which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated affects 1 in 68 children across the nation.
The effort is called The MSSNG Project – with the missing vowels representing the missing information. Liz Feld, the president of Autism Speaks, says the project is “the most promising autism research that's ever been done,” adding that prior research has shown that answers lie in the DNA.
“What we know about autism is not enough,” she said. “We don't know what causes it, and we don't have a cure for it. And we have very few treatments.”
Robert Ring, the chief science officer of Autism Speaks, said researchers planned to sequence 10,000 genomes -- the comprehensive genetic material contained in DNA -- in the first phase of the program.
“Understanding what makes individuals different from one another is a critical part to moving this story forward, developing new treatments,” he said.
Those treatments can’t come soon enough for the affected families.
Designer Tommy Hilfiger is the parent of a child with autism. The fashion icon talked to “Good Morning America” about the project’s potential.
“I am hoping someday I can pick up the New York Times … and there is a discovery and there is a reason children are born with it or do get autism and there is a cure,” he said.
When his family first learned of the diagnosis, he said, “you begin to question yourself and say ‘why us?’”
Their lives have changed, he said.
“We're much more involved in every aspect of our child's life - from therapies to schooling to treatments and its nonstop, it’s every day,” he said.
This research has been a dream of Autism Speaks for years, but the technology to store and share the information hasn’t been available until now. Google’s resources will allow the dream to become reality.
The data from just one person’s genome would take hours to download onto drives, but this project aims to store 10,000 genomes. The amount of data is massive -- the equivalent of watching more than 13 years of continuous streaming high-definition TV.
The database will be completely open, so scientists all over the world – regardless of funding or connections -- will have access to the enormous pool of information.
Ring described the database as a “game-changer” and added: “We’re going to use the same tools and technology that we use every day to search the Internet to look into the genome to find these missing answers."
“The faster we can sequence the genomes, the sooner we're going to have the answers. And the missing project is a search for those answers. And the answers are in the DNA. And we're going to find them,” she said.