With massive donation, Israel autism center aims to ‘impact policy worldwide’

$13 million in funding will allow huge ramp-up of project to improve diagnosis and treatment based on large database of Israeli children with autism

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A counselor with posters of red and blue icons teaching an autistic child. (KatarzynaBialasiewicz  via iStock by Getty Images)
A counselor with posters of red and blue icons teaching an autistic child. (KatarzynaBialasiewicz via iStock by Getty Images)

Ambitious Israeli research that is expected to lead to better diagnosis and treatment for autism has received a massive investment of NIS 40 million ($13 million) to accelerate the project.

The Canadian-Israeli Azrieli Foundation made the donation, the largest ever for an autism infrastructure project in Israel, to the National Autism Research Centre of Israel. The center is a collaboration between scientists from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and clinicians from Soroka University Medical Center, both in Beersheba.

The investment will boost the importance of Israel in autism research internationally as a mass of important studies will be generated, said the center’s director, Prof. Ilan Dinstein.

“Our center is extremely unique from an international perspective,” he told The Times of Israel. “Very few countries around the world have this kind of research infrastructure with its unique ability to follow children longitudinally and determine who is improving and who is not.

“We expect that our studies will impact health policy in Israel and throughout the world.”

The center has been renamed The Azrieli National Centre for Autism and Neurodevelopment Research in recognition of the donation, and to acknowledge the fact that its brief is growing beyond autism to other neurodevelopmental conditions.

Its flagship project is a database that contains a mass of information — contributed with parental consent — about the challenges and progress of Israeli autistic children, which is intended to help experts reach an improved understanding of best practices for diagnosis and treatment.

An girl holds a ribbon to raise awareness of autism (iStock)

It currently has information on 1,200 children out of an estimated 20,000 children with autism in the country. With the new funding it is expected to grow to around 6,000 children, which is enough to generate research with a very solid basis and a strong international impact, Dinstein said.

“Our vision is to improve diagnosis and treatment, and having a large cohort of people contributing many types of data is very valuable for this,” said Dinstein.

“Previous research on different aspects of autism often used data from different samples, which makes it difficult to connect findings across studies. For example, it’s hard to know if genetic results from one study relate to behavioral results from another study.

“To connect the dots we collect a range of data from the same children: everything from genetics and biobank data to behavior and video and audio recordings. This greatly increases the value of the data and allows geneticists and psychologists to work together and see how their findings relate.”

The building planned to house The Azrieli National Centre for Autism and Neurodevelopment Research (courtesy of Ben Gurion University)

One finding from the current database has been the importance of early diagnosis.

“We have shown in studies from last few years that early diagnosis is important for the best outcomes and found that kids diagnosed before the age of two-and-a-half are three times more likely to improve in their core autism systems within a year or two, this is a clear example of how this kind of research can impact on policy,” said Dinstein.

He said that research has demonstrated that autism is actually a family of multiple disorders, with a variety of symptoms that are caused by different reasons.

“The big challenge is to determine how many types of autism there are, how to best identify them early, and most importantly, what interventions work best for each type,” Dinstein said. “To determine this, scientists have to partner with clinicians and study large numbers of children with autism over extended periods of time.

“In order to make educated decisions regarding health policy for autism you need to know what works for which children and we’ll be able to provide data and analysis for these decisions that doesn’t exist today.”

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