Friday, September 7, 2012

University of Pittsburgh autism center loses funding - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The University of Pittsburgh's nationally renowned autism research center has lost its primary federal funding -- and it's not alone.

In an action that one researcher called "devastating news," the National Institutes of Health has decided not to renew $15 million, five-year grants to several of its original Autism Centers for Excellence, including centers at Pitt, Yale University, the University of Washington, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of California, San Diego.

Kevin Pelphrey, a Yale researcher who got a new NIH grant to study autism in girls, and who was one of the original investigators at the Pitt center, said that "it's surprising so many centers were not renewed."

He attributed the outcome to a highly competitive application process for federal autism research money, where the number of applicants doubled or tripled but funding basically remained flat.

The Pitt center's director, Nancy Minshew, was unavailable for comment, and no other Pitt officials were immediately available.

But Mr. Pelphrey said that nationally, the changes in autism research funding have sent a "shock wave" through the scientific community, because most of the centers that were not renewed had high-profile researchers and programs.

"The autism community is probably stunned at how a lot of the important work at places like Pitt wasn't renewed," he said. "Hopefully there will be an opening up of more NIH funding that will allow some of the work to continue."

Marlene Behrmann, a noted autism researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, said the centers had done good work -- enough so that the NIH's decision was puzzling.

"It's unsettling that these funds are being pulled just when important findings are about to percolate to the surface," she said.

The only original federal excellence center to get renewal funding was the University of California, Los Angeles.

The NIH also distributed research money to networks of universities for specific research projects. The only network site to be renewed was one at the University of North Carolina.

Mr. Pelphrey said the NIH request for applications this time around had emphasized studies of gender differences in autism, genetic analysis and brain imaging. He noted that the Yale center's renewal application had no genetic analysis component, which may have hurt its chances.

Overall, NIH awarded grants to only three centers of excellence, compared with six in the previous funding cycle. The new centers added to the mix were one at Emory University in Atlanta, headed by former Yale research star Ami Klin, and one at Boston University.

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