By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on December 6, 2013
Atlanta’s growing prominence as a center for autism research and treatment has received a major financial endorsement — $40 million — from two local foundations.
The Marcus Autism Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which currently treats more children with autism than any other institution in the United States, also is leading the way in the research and early diagnosis of autism — combined with earlier treatment and intervention.
The Marcus Foundation is making a new $25 million gift to the center and the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation is making a three-year $15 million donation as part of a $70 million private fundraising effort to fulfill the center’s five-year strategic plan.
Central to that strategic plan is the research being conducted by Dr. Ami Klin, director of the Marcus Autism Center and a Georgia Research Alliance eminent scholar who relocated his entire research team to Atlanta in 2011. Klin and his team have been developing an eye-tracking technology that can begin identifying autism in the first year of life. Today, most kids are diagnosed with autism when they are about five years old, when it is much harder to treat the condition so that they can live more normal lives and not require special education.
Dr. Klin, and his associate Dr. Warren Jones, were just published in the science journal Nature and received national notoriety for their ground-breaking research. They intend to seek U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for their eye-tracking technology so it can become more widely available for parents and children.
“We have a community to serve, a reality to change and the great promise of our children’s future,” Dr. Klin said in an interview on Dec. 2. “We now are creating the tools to identify autism in the first year of life… We are identifying autism before the symptoms emerge.”
But Dr. Klin said that is only half of the story.
“It would be unethical for us to be able to diagnose children with autism and have nothing to offer to families in terms of treatment. We are advancing both sides of the coin.”
The Marcus Autism Center, which had been treating about 550 children with autism each year, now is helping about 5,500. It is working with parents and caregivers to teach them the tools of how to treat autistic children and minimize the symptoms before they become ingrained. That is considered to be a much more pragmatic alternative than expecting families or insurance to pay for intensive therapy of 25 hours a week.
Don Mueller, executive director of the Marcus Autism Center at Children’s, said the five-year strategic plan (that totals $190 million in federal, state and private contributions) would eliminate the waiting list at the Center. If the eye-tracking diagnostic technology is approved by the FDA, Mueller said that the goal would be to “have universal screening for all children” before they turn three. “Something very special is happening in Atlanta that is not happening anywhere else in the country,” Mueller said. In addition to the research, clinical trials and treatment that’s occurring at the Marcus Autism Center, Mueller said that there is the Atlanta Autism Consortium that includes 45 organizations working together to find solutions.
Currently one in every 88 children is being diagnosed with autism, making it one of the prevalent medical conditions impacting the nation. The Marcus Autism Center also has been designated a National Institute of Health Autism Center of Excellence, only one of three in the country.
Michael Cassidy, president and CEO of the Georgia Research Alliance, said the research of Dr. Klin and his team will transform the lives of countless children and their families worldwide.
“We are especially pleased to be working with Ami and his team to explore the development of their early detection method that uses eye-tracking technologies to reliably measure a baby’s risk of developing autism,” Cassidy said. “The potential is huge.”
The center has come a long way from when Bernie Marcus, a co-founder of The Home Depot Inc., started it more than 20 years ago. “It was always a struggle,” Marcus said about the early days in a Dec. 4 telephone interview. “My foundation was basically carrying the institution. It was losing millions. Every time I thought about closing it down, I would go down there, and mothers would gather around me, thanking me. I could never close it down.”
On Aug. 4, 2008, the Marcus Autism Center was acquired by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which helped turn the whole situation around. Doug Hertz, CEO of United Distributors Inc., who was then board chairman of Children’s and who is also a trustee of the Marcus Foundation, told the rest of his board that “I didn’t think we could be a world-class pediatric health-care system without addressing autism in some meaningful way.”
Within a couple of years, Mueller and the greater Atlanta community believed it was time to attract a top autism researcher to the state. Hertz said that his top three choices were: Dr. Klin, Dr. Klin and Dr. Klin, who was then a tenured professor at Yale University. A community-wide recruitment effort finally lured Dr. Klin and his team to Atlanta in 2011.
“A few years ago we helped the Marcus Center bring Ami to Atlanta and made a $5 million gift from the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation,” said Russ Hardin, president of the Whitehead Foundation. “We have now doubled down on that investment. We have made a $15 million grant over three years. We had high hopes when we helped recruit Ami. He has exceeded our expectations.”
Marcus, who had already invested about $65 million in the center, made another $25 million gift to support this next phase.
“We are making this commitment because we feel so strongly that we can make a difference,” Marcus said. “This is not going to just help the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia, this is going to have an international impact. This is a great investment for our foundation.”
Marcus added that with the leadership of Dr. Klin and Mueller, the Marcus Autism Center will “become a focal point for autism around the world.” In May, Atlanta will host the International Meeting for Autism Research, bringing in between 3,000 and 4,000 scientists from 35 to 40 countries.
“This is game-changing,” Hardin said. “If we can detect autism much earlier through this eye-tracking machine, with intervention and therapy, we can maximize that child’s potential. What this research shows is that an autistic child’s destiny is not determined at birth.”