By Anne Dachel
On Friday, Feb 22, 2013, Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D., gave the opening talk at the world's first Autism Investment Conference and explained why now is the time to make a profit from a nightmare. Autism Speaks' Geraldine Dawson: On the "diversity of investment opportunities that exist in the autism field"
I watched the 20 minute video of Geraldine Dawson's speech to the "autism investors." First of all, she smiled throughout. Maybe it's just me, but it's very hard for me to talk about autism and not sound tense and worried. She also described herself as being "excited" about a number of topics. Again, it seems totally out-of-place when talking about a lifelong disability like autism. Her main purpose was to announce all the investment (money-making) possibilities out there because of the raging epidemic of neurologically damaged children. She defined autism and said its prevalence is growing. She didn't specifically tell us why, but the message was clear---it's a genetic disorder. She never mentioned the word "regression," but she pointed out that the symptoms don't typically appear until around age two and she was quite interested in diagnosing it in babies. She created her own fairy tale world about the advances being made in autism.
One point she made was stunning. Dawson said, "Of course the cost of autism has also increased. So as in 2005, we estimated that the cost of autism was about $35 billion a year, we now estimate that the cost of autism is ....about $37 billion annually, and most of that is for adult care."
What? Autism costs $37 billion a year and the money is being used mostly for adults with autism? How does that work when the vast majority of Americans with autism are under the age of 18? Can someone explain that to me? Furthermore, what's autism going to cost when the generation of children with autism reach adulthood? No matter. Dawson didn't go into details. It was just a passing remark.
The real message here was: autism is happening more and more and there are lots of ways to make money from genetically defective children. The time to invest is now. Carpe diem all you for-profit companies. Autism Speaks is here to show you how.
Here's what Dr. Dawson had to say about autism and why investors should be interested.
"There is a great need for new products."
"Because of the progress of science, I think there is greater opportunity right now to develop more effective diagnostic and treatment methods.... The moment is right for this kind of conference."
(She then thanked the sponsors, one of whom was Shire Pharmaceutical.)
"Autism is a public health challenge, in fact many people would say autism is a public health crisis because over the last forty years it has increased in prevalence over a thousand percent, which is really quite remarkable. ..."
"Of course the cost of autism has also increased. So as in 2005, we estimated that the cost of autism was about $35 billion a year, we now estimate that the cost of autism is ....about $37 billion annually, and most of that is for adult care."
(She went on to say that the cost was also rising for the UK at the same rate.)
She defined autism in its various forms and symptoms. "About 30 percent of people with autism do not learn to speak with words."
"We have very few services and treatments for adults. ... This is an area of great need. ..."
Dawson gave statistics for adults with autism:
Most adults are living at home, "socially isolated and unengaged."
"Less than a fifth of high functioning adults with autism are able to find employment after high school." Dawson mentioned depression and anxiety among adults, along with housing needs.
The mortality rate is six times higher than the general population. They have health conditions.
So how is Autism Speaks helping? 4 ways, Dawson said:
First, they're raising awareness.
Second, advocacy...things like insurance reform and services.
Third, they aid with referrals.
Fourth, they invest in research. "Our science budget is about 25 to 30 million dollars annually. About half of that is investigator initiated awards and about half is targeted, staff-driven areas of research. To date, we have committed over 180 million dollars to research in the area of autism."
She talked about studies on "ideology and biological mechanisms, new methods of diagnosing and phenotyping, and "new approaches to treatment and prevention."
"Dissemination science" is also an area of concern. It involves getting the "empirically validated tools" into use in the community.
"We really are dedicated to improving the lives of people with autism, and thus we're always thinking about how we can move discoveries through development to delivery and have a real impact in people's lives out in the community."
"One of the exciting things...is the new technologies." By that, she meant brain imaging tools and in the area of genetics, sequencing the entire genome." She noted stem cell research and new drugs to restore the function of neurons. Dawson also cited all the new aps for smart phones and computer tablets to help ASD victims communicate.
Next up was diagnosing breakthroughs and "early risk detection."
"As we know, the symptoms of autism don't begin to emerge until about twelve to eighteen months of age and the full syndrome does not emerge until eighteen to twenty-four months of age."
Last year, due to a study partially funded by Autism Speaks, "it was discovered that babies who go one to develop autism actually show changes in their brain development that can be detected as early as six months of age."
Dawson said this discovery was so important for early intervention and "PREVENTING THOSE SYMPTOMS FROM OCCURRING IN THE FIRST PLACE."
"Another very exciting initiative is our collaboration with the Beijing Genome Institute...."
"As many of you know, the investments that we've made in genetics are really starting to pay off. First of all, we've discovered that autism genetics is very complex. There are many genes involved, certainly over a hundred, probably over a thousand autism risk genes contribute to the disorder."
She went on to talk about drug development.
Their ultimate goal seems to be to "partner with the for-profit community to accelerate the development of diagnostics, technologies, drugs--products that promise to improve the lives of people with autism."
Her next focus was "The Autism Speaks Autism Treatment
"This is a collaboration among 17 academic medical centers across the U.S. and Canada, 350 clinicians, 6 medical specialties. We directly serve about 30,000 children annually. ... There is a patient registry where all the children evaluated in the clinic have detailed information... this allows us to understand what are the most concerning presenting problems... "
She was also "very excited" about the publication of new guidelines for physicians, endorsed by the journal, Pediatrics.
She ended by saying, "Our success ...really depends on partnerships."
"These partnerships are with families, they're with the
government, they're with other non-profit organizations, but also we need to
partner with the investment community, with the private sector.
And so today, what we want to do is connect people who have good ideas and innovative
ideas with people who have the resources to bring those ideas to market.
So what we want to do today is first educate the investment community
about the scale and also diversity of investment opportunities that exist
in the autism field. Then second, we want to showcase both new and
established companies so that they have an opportunity to show you the products
that they're working on. And then third, we want to provide opportunities
for networking so that partnerships can develop. So I'm very excited about
the day ahead. I think it's going to be productive. I should
also mention that we hope to do this annually and this will
grow. So this is just the beginning of what I hope will be a successful
endeavor. Thank you very much."