The Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) is pleased to announce that it intends to fund four awards in response to the Maternal COVID-19 as a Potential Risk for Autism: Supplemental Funding for Ongoing Pregnancy Cohorts request for applications.
These grants will supplement funding from other agencies to help support ongoing pregnancy cohorts and enable these studies to expand biospecimen collection, facilitate data sharing and extend postnatal family tracking. These cohorts and biospecimen collections can then be leveraged in future research to understand the effects of gestational COVID-19 infection and inflammation on autism risk in children.
“Pregnancy is a critical time for brain development. Numerous studies have shown an association between maternal infection, fever and inflammation with risk for autism in children,” says Marta Benedetti, SFARI senior scientist. “The COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged communities worldwide, also affecting pregnant women, can afford researchers the unique opportunity to better understand how maternal infection, and the subsequent cascade of immune responses, are related to the risk for developing autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions.”
“SFARI identified this supplemental funding mechanism as one way that we could leverage ongoing longitudinal studies of pregnancy cohorts,” added Paul Wang, deputy director of Clinical Research Associates, LLC (an affiliate of the Simons Foundation). “And in particular, to enable researchers to collect additional samples of importance for studying autism risk in the context of COVID-19 infection, as well as to continue following families until neurodevelopmental outcomes in children can be assessed.”
SFARI intends to provide approximately $1.4 million in funding over the next three years to support the following four cohort studies:
Andrea Edlow, M.D. (Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School)
Andrea Edlow and colleagues aim to characterize COVID-19-induced immune responses in both pregnant women and affected fetuses as well as analyzing the maternal microbiome. To achieve this, they have initiated sample collection from more than 400 pregnant women, including maternal blood, stool and rectal samples, placental biopsies, cord blood and breast milk. The SFARI funds will help to expand the number of samples collected, as well as supporting retention activities that will be critical for correlating maternal-feto-placental biology with outcomes in children. The establishment of this pregnancy registry will serve as a foundation for future studies to understand how maternal COVID-19 infection produces long-term neurodevelopmental effects on children through maternal and fetal immune responses.
Karin Nielsen, M.D. (University of California, Los Angeles)
Karin Nielsen and colleagues have experience in collecting maternal-infant specimens following maternal Zika virus infections and following infants longitudinally for neurodevelopmental outcomes. They plan to utilize their existing infrastructure and lessons learned from these past studies to design a clinical study which explores cellular and humoral immunological parameters in mother-infant pairs with maternal COVID-19 infections, highly focused on proteomics and longitudinal infant neurodevelopment. They have already enrolled 334 pregnant women in the United States and Brazil and have collected more than 2,500 specimens (including maternal blood, nasopharyngeal and rectal samples, as well as placental tissue). They plan to evaluate general motor responses in infants and perform the M-CHAT (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers) as part of their assessments of neurodevelopmental outcomes.
Anna-Sophie Rommel, Ph.D. (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai)
Anna-Sophie Rommel and colleagues established a large prospective pregnancy cohort, Generation C, at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City in the early weeks of the pandemic to carefully investigate the impact of maternal COVID-19 infection. More than 2,200 women have enrolled in the study to date. The SFARI award will help to expand the collection of biospecimens from this cohort as well as help to retain participants for longitudinal follow-up studies to investigate the relationship between COVID-19 maternal infection, inflammation and child neurodevelopment, including the risk for ASD.
Verena Sengpiel, M.D., Ph.D. (Sahlgrenska University Hospital and Gothenburg University)
The COVID-19 in Pregnancy and Early Childhood (COPE) is a Swedish, multicenter study that includes both healthy pregnant women and pregnant women testing positive for COVID-19. As part of the study, biosamples are collected from the mother at several timepoints during pregnancy and during the first two months after delivery. Samples are also collected from infants. Survey-based follow-up of the child’s neurocognitive development and neuropsychiatric health will continue up to four years of age. In addition, data will be synchronized to Swedish health registers, enabling long-term follow-up of both mother and child. The study design will enable the researchers to assess the impact of both symptomatic and asymptomatic COVID-19 infection on pregnancy outcomes and maternal and child health, including the risk for autism.