Could an anti-cancer drug help people with autism become more social?

New research has shown that an approved anti-cancer drug could help people with autism to make and maintain new friendships and relationships.

Researchers from the University of Buffalo in America showed how low doses of Romidepsin, a drug used to treat lymphoma, restored the genes that are associated with social and communication skills in mice.

People on the autistic spectrum can often have difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships, but it is thought that the drug could be used to improve the anti-social aspects of the condition.

Dr Zhen Yan, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Buffalo, said:  “We have discovered a small molecule compound that shows a profound and prolonged effect on autism-like social deficits without obvious side effects.

“The extensive overlap in risk genes for autism and cancer, many of which are chromatin remodelling factors, supports the idea of repurposing epigenetic drugs used in cancer treatment as targeted treatments for autism.”

During the study, the team conducted experiments on mice’s social preference and self-grooming behaviours and found that mice that were deficient in a gene called Shank 3, a hallmark of autism, became more sociable after being treated with Romidepsin.

Even a three-day dose was found to last for three weeks, which covers the juvenile to the late adolescent period of a mouse’s lifecycle, which could equate to several years in human subjects, according to the researchers.

“Autism involves the loss of so many genes,” said Dr Yan.

“To rescue the social deficits, a compound has to affect a number of genes that are involved in neuronal communication.”

During the study, Romidepsin restored the majority of the more than 200 genes that were suppressed in the autism animal model.

Dr Yan added: “The advantage of being able to adjust a set of genes identified as key autism risk factors may explain the strong and long-lasting efficacy of this therapeutic agent for autism.”

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