Atlanta becoming a world-class center of excellence for autism research
By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Sept. 28, 2012
It was June 2010 and philanthropist Bernie Marcus was in a four-hour marathon meeting trying to convince Dr. Ami Klin that he should leave a tenured post at Yale University where he had spent 20 years working on cutting-edge autism research.
Klin had submitted an 11-page vision statement of what he would hope to accomplish if he were to move to Georgia to become director of the Marcus Autism Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and a Georgia Research Alliance eminent scholar at Emory University’s School of Medicine.
Marcus had carefully gone over each page of Klin’s visions statement — highlighting various points while addressing all the opportunities that would exist if he moved to Georgia.
“You have something here that you are not going to find anywhere else in the world, not at Yale, not anywhere,” Marcus told Klin. “I can’t imagine you would not take this job. The only way you turn us down is if you are a schmuck.”
Somehow when Marcus, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist who had made his fortune by co-founding The Home Depot Inc., used that derogatory Yiddish word when speaking to a leading Jewish scientist from Yale, it resonated.
Klin said yes, and he moved his entire 18-person research team from Yale to Atlanta in January 2011.
“He was the last piece of the puzzle,” Marcus said of Klin during an interview Sept. 25. “Everything fell into place — the state of Georgia, the city of Atlanta, all these universities, all these organizations. We ended up solving the puzzle. Everything we said would happen has happened.”
On Sept. 27, Gov. Nathan Deal was to formally announce that the National Institutes of Health has awarded an Atlanta-based consortium an $8.3 million grant to create a new Autism Center of Excellence, one of only three in the country.
“We are now among the elite centers of science for autism in the country,” said Klin, who will serve as the principal investigator and director of the new Autism Center of Excellence.
But Klin is quick to say that the grant is a recognition to the multitude of partners who have come together to make Atlanta and Georgia a leading center for the diagnosis and treatment of autism — which now is impacting one out of every 88 children in the United States.
“It is more common than all childhood cancers put together, and it is more common than childhood diabetes,” Klin said. “It is a lifelong condition.”
Today, the median age of diagnosing autism is when a child is five years old. At that point, a child’s behavioral patterns have become ingrained, making it difficult for he or she to develop the social skills to enable them to go to a regular school and a sustainable job.
Now Klin has developed what Marcus calls “Dr. Ami’s machine” — a way to detect whether children as young as six months will become autistic.
“We know that the earlier we treat these kids the better chance they will have in this world,” Marcus said.
It also has significant economic implications. It costs about $80,000 a year to treat children with autism, but it only costs about $6,000 a year to teach children who have developed the necessary learning skills by the age of three. In short, Klin said autism costs the United States about $140 billion a year. By waiting to treat children with autism when they are five years old, it is “condemning children to the worst outcome.”
The consortium of Atlanta and Georgia partners is hard at work to address this challenge. In addition to the Marcus Autism Center and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, it includes the Emory University School of Medicine, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Georgia Tech among several others.
Emory also is researching the genetic causes of autism realizing that it is a neuro-biologically diverse group of autism spectrum disorders. Most geneticists now believe that many of the disorders involve interaction of multiple faulty genes.
“There’s something very, very special happening in Atlanta,” Klin said at a recent meeting of the Georgia Research Alliance board. “We started with some great resources and amazing commitments, and within the period of 10 months, we set up the most incredible infrastructure.”
Already, the Marcus Autism Center serves eight times more children with autism than any other center in the United States — serving 5,676 children in 2011.
It’s an amazing number, but there’s still a waiting list,” said Marcus, who founded the center in 1991. “I’m so proud to have my name on that building. We just don’t realize how many lives have been touched by this.”
But Marcus also said there’s a disconnect. While 33 states offer insurance coverage for children with autism, “Georgia is not one of them.”
It is difficult for families — financially, emotionally and physically — to take care of children with autism. Marcus, who has witnessed that first hand over the past two decades, admitted that keeping the center afloat “was a struggle for 15 of the 20 years.”
But that began to change when Children’s Healthcare took over the center. And when Klin moved to Atlanta, it helped galvanize the enthusiasm and efforts already underway.
“It’s a unique community of scientists, but it’s also truly a city-wide commitment to tackle this public health issue in an unprecedented, concerted fashion,” Klin said. “What really makes this effort so different is the fact that all these institutions have come together to face this enormous challenge.”
Asked about whether the move to Atlanta has lived up to the vision statement he presented to Marcus two years ago, Klin said: “There’s nothing in the document that isn’t underway. It’s just the opposite. We’re building on success. It’s been a giddy experience. And every day there are new opportunities.”