Furthermore, this kind of research could lead to better treatments for a subset of children with elevated levels of certain compounds in their urine, said James Woods, a researcher at the University of Washington who worked with Battelle researchers on the project.
While the study was relatively small, including 76 boys, Nick Heyer, a senior research scientist at Battelle’s Seattle lab, who worked on the study and said he’s hopeful it can be replicated on a larger scale and lead to a widely available screening test for babies.
“If it can detect increased risk of autism at age 1, that would be fantastic,” he said. “It’s the only biomarker (test) I’m aware of that could be done non-invasively and fairly inexpensively.
“I’m really pretty optimistic and excited about getting it retested.”
Heyer said he is trying to incorporate the urine test into a study that will include 1,200 mothers who have autistic children and are pregnant again. The researchers would follow the new babies’ development through age 3. He’s also working with a laboratory in South Korea to reproduce the study in a larger group.
The test looks for elevated levels of compounds called porphyrins and costs between $50 and $100. Woods said the cost would come down if the test were used frequently to screen babies.
Woods said everybody has the compounds in their urine, but some of the children in the study had clearly elevated levels.
The study included only boys, who are much more likely to have autism than girls, but the test likely would work for both genders based on other research, Woods said.
Heyer said there’s been speculation that elevated porphyrin levels are connected to mercury exposure in children with autism, but the research team found no link to increased exposure to mercury, leaving open the question of why the compounds are higher in some children with autism.
“I’m not a supporter of the concept that this is due to mercury exposure,” he said. “There’s no evidence in my mind that that should be the reason for this.”
Woods JS, Armel SE, Fulton DI, Allen J, Wessels K, et al. 2010 Urinary Porphyrin Excretion in Neurotypical and Autistic Children. Environ Health Perspect 118(10): doi:10.1289/ehp.0901713