Fighting Autism with Genetics Research


My name is Jeremy Willsey, I’m a post-doc
in Matt State Lab at UCSF. We actually just recently moved here from Yale University.
Our lab works on trying to understand the genetics of autism with the idea that if you
can understand the genetics of autism, this will give you a window into the biology of
autism, which is something that has largely still trying to be worked out. Yes, we’re
interested in using genetics to understand the biology of autism, but the ultimate drive
of it is to translate that to treatment. That’s really the goal of all of this, is that you
understand the perturbations that are happening during the pathogens of autism then you can
treat them. Whether you can prevent, whether you can give people information on risk factors
and things like that. So it’s definitely the biggest drives, is translating our findings
to the clinic. So I did my undergraduate in Simon Fraser University in Burnaby BC Canada
and there was where my first exposure to working in a research lab. I was very lucky to work
in a lab that mentored me extremely well and really developed my passion for both research
and being involved in the research community. It made me realize that it was more than just
the projects, it was really a community of people but it gives you a lot of support and
just leads to collegial relationships there. There’s kind of two parallel approaches in
our lab. One of which is the primary goal which is identification of genes and the second
part is using this genes to understand the biology. And that’s really where my work has
focused. And so, one of the challenges is that you have this large number of genes,
there’s probably upwards of a thousand genes that contribute to autism risk and when you
look at this list of genes you have, they appear to be relevant to all parts of biology.
You know, it could be synapse development, synapse function, brain development, gene
regulation, gene expression, modification, all kinds of things. And so just looking at
them at face value it’s just very hard to say, “gotcha! that’s what’s going wrong.â€
And so, one of the ways we’ve worked on solving that problem is using data from a developing
human brain. The idea being that autism is largely a disorder of the brain, and that
using this information is the most relevant. So part of it is generating the data sets,
processing the data from raw data to a final format that you can begin your analysis of.
And then, really troubleshooting also. Matt’s lab in particular is fantastic for what I
would like to get out of a lab which is an extremely collaborative lab. We all work together
very closely. We’re all very close both in and out of the lab and I think, for me, that
translates to happiness because you do spend a lot of time in the lab, and particularly
during really busy periods, it can take up a lot of time in your life. And so having
that group of people that you are close with personally and collegially, makes a huge difference.
It’s just daily happiness. So I think that the lots of different types of people are
successful in science and it’s really just a matter of finding the right environment
for you.To that extent I would say the best thing that someone can do is just start, just
get in a lab and start working and start getting research experience. I think until you’re
in the situation, you don’t know if you’re going to really enjoy research, if it’s
going to be something for you. And the more labs you can get experience in, the more you’ll
realize what you want your role in research to be. The questions that we’re trying to
answer are very interesting to me and also the fact that we’re— in answering these
questions we’re hoping to help people. So for me those things are particularly driving.
I really do like making sense of data and in the autism field right now it’s a particularly
exciting time because gene discovery efforts have accelerated substantially so we have
a large biological substrate to work with. And then coupled with the fact that there’s
new revolutionary techniques being brought to the forefront, where you now have gene
expression from the human brain across the course of development, it’s an amazing data
set when you just look back on, or just take a step back and look at the data set and so
on. The fact that you can then combine that with a large number of genes associated with
Autism and other genomics data sets, it’s just amazing and it’s a time where we can
really make big strides forward in terms of understanding the neurobiology of autism.
So I think that part for me is very exciting.

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