If you woke up feeling lucky, the Mega Millions jackpot is currently at $1.1 billion ahead of Tuesday night’s drawing—the third-largest prize in U.S. history. If you suddenly stop getting the Daily Tonic in your inbox on Wednesday, now you know why (just kidding, of course). Moving on to something more important. There might be a revolutionary new diagnostic test for autism right around the corner. Let’s dive in.
A Single Strand Of Hair
According to CDC data from 2021, the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the U.S. is estimated at 1 in 44 births. Currently, more than 5.4 million adults in the U.S., or 2.2% of the population, are on the autism spectrum. And unfortunately, ASD is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the world.
The number of children diagnosed with autism has risen consistently and dramatically since the 1990s. Yet, despite over three decades of this troubling trend, the causes of ASD remain largely unknown. There is an ongoing and heated debate over what roles genetic and environmental factors play in the development of the disorder, but aside from theories, researchers and experts are still mainly in the dark.
Part of the reason why ASD cases have gone up so much in the past few decades can be attributed to rising awareness of ASD and improved systems for identifying children with autism. However, there are theories supported by some evidence that environmental factors involving events occurring in utero or during birth could also play a key role in the development of ASD.
Advanced parental age at the time of conception, prenatal exposure to air pollution, heavy metals, or certain pesticides, maternal obesity, diabetes, or immune system disorders, extreme prematurity or very low birth weight, and any birth difficulty leading to periods of oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain have all been associated with an increased risk of developing ASD. However, no conclusive evidence points to one environmental factor as the key contributing risk factor for ASD. These are still all just possible theories.
And, of course, genetics play a role as well. But like with most genetic predispositions for disease, it is widely understood that genes only load the weapon, but the environmental factors eventually pull the trigger.
This brings us to LinusBio, a start-up based in New York that has developed a first-of-its-kind diagnostic test for autism that hopes to find reliable risk markers in a single strand of hair. The test is still in the early stages of development and has yet to receive approval from the U.S. federal government, but early studies have shown a lot of promise.
The technology uses a laser to turn a strand of hair into plasma, which is then analyzed for heavy metal exposure history. Heavy metal exposure has been one of the critical environmental factors linked to autism in past studies. In a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, the test accurately predicted autism in 81% of cases.
While this test is not meant to be a standalone diagnostic tool but rather merely an aid to clinicians in reaching a diagnosis, the test could provide a crucial piece of information that would facilitate early intervention for children with ASD. Currently, most children with ASD are diagnosed, on average, when they turn four years old. With earlier interventions and therapy models for young children, researchers hope this test could make lives significantly easier for the millions of children and families impacted by autism each year.
The key takeaway? We often give Big Pharma a (well-deserved) hard time in this newsletter. Still, it is important to remember that while the system is far from perfect, it is also responsible for some incredible innovation that has the potential to help millions of lives. While more research still needs to be done before this new test can be considered a valid measure of autism risk, early signs are promising, and that is a great, hopeful way to kick off the week!