Marcus Center lands top autism researcher

By Maria Saporta
Friday, November 5, 2010

Atlanta is destined to become the national center for autism research and treatment thanks to a unique consortium that was able to attract one of the top autism researchers in the world.

Ami Klin, director of the autism program at Yale University’s School of Medicine, has agreed to join the Marcus Autism Center of the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) as its medical director at the first of the year.

Klin also will be a Georgia Research Alliance eminent scholar at Emory University and director of the Division of Autism and Related Disabilities in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University’s School of Medicine.

“This was a community recruitment effort,” said Bernie Marcus, who founded the Marcus Autism Center and was integrally involved in getting Klin to move to Atlanta. “Everyone told us he wasn’t leaving Yale. He had been there 20 years, and they were very good to him.”

But once Klin came to Atlanta to meet the various people and institutions dedicated to autism research and treatment, he became convinced that this is where he should be.

“The partnership in Atlanta creates opportunities that will not be replicated anywhere else, any time soon, in the country,” Klin said. “This is a dream come true. My goal in coming to Atlanta is to make it the nation’s capital of early screening and treatment for children with autism.”

Klin’s move to Atlanta also will include the relocation of his team of 15 scientists along with significant funding from the National Institutes of Health as well as from private institutions, said Don Mueller, executive director of the Marcus Autism Center.

“This will make a major economic impact,” Mueller said, adding that Klin will be able to combine his scientific research along with clinical care.

At Yale, Klin developed technology that can diagnose autism in children as young as six months old. He has developed eye-tracking technology to visualize and measure social engagement, which is an important tool in identifying which children potentially have an autism spectrum disorder.

As the Marcus Autism Center has been able to prove, early diagnosis is critical in the successful treatment of autism. Currently, most children are not diagnosed with autism until they are about 4 years old.

“After three or four years of age, this condition gets set, and it makes it much more difficult to treat,” Klin said. “Our objective is to screen children in the first year of life…, and to develop early intervention medical programs.”

Marcus put it this way. “We know that if we get a kid of two or three, we can actually change their life,” he said, adding that the center treated 4,000 children in the past year. “This is the greatest laboratory in the world.”

Marcus has seen what happens to a family when a child is born with autism. Back in 1991, he had an assistant who had a child born with autism, and he saw firsthand the impact that had on the family. That’s when he decided to start the Marcus Autism Center.

“I know that pain,” Marcus said. “I have watched these families, and I’ve watched them become totally debilitated financially and emotionally.”

Mueller said Klin’s decision to move to Georgia was partly because of the Atlanta Autism Consortium, which includes the Marcus Center, Children’s Healthcare, Emory University, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech and The University of Georgia.

“That doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” Mueller said. “In Ami, we have an internationally known researcher who has chosen to make Atlanta home. This really is a transformational opportunity.”

The diagnosis of autism has become far more prevalent in recent years. Today, about one in every 120 children in the country is diagnosed with autism, Klin said. In Georgia, that number is one in 98.

Klin said it would be incorrect to say that there is an autism epidemic under way and that Georgia has a higher incidence than the rest of the country.

Instead, he said that with the CDC, CHOA and the Marcus Autism Center, there probably is a greater diagnosis of autism. Also, the definition of autism has expanded to include various levels of the disorder.

Klin said he partnership between Emory and Children’s Healthcare holds the promise of providing “universal screening” for autism during well baby visits in their first year of life. The testing that Klin has developed takes five to 10 minutes, and he would like to “implement the system in places where many children are seen.”

One of the key factors for Klin deciding to move to Atlanta was the Georgia Research Alliance, which he described as a “fabulous approach to science” aimed at stimulating economic development in the state.

But the decision really came down to “a confluence” and “a commitment” of people and institutions in Atlanta.

“There was no reason to leave Yale after 21 years,” Klin said. “It took something extremely special. You have some very special people in Atlanta, and that made an impression on me.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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