Boston’s Autism Mini-Cluster: New Drugs and Diagnostics Target Mysterious Brain Disorders

7/22/10

One day in my high school Spanish class, a kid who I was told had autism started hitting himself on the head repeatedly until our teacher sent him to the nurse. Looking back, I wonder whether he understood how abnormal his behavior was. But 17 years later, I’m encouraged by the growing cluster of outfits in the Boston area that are developing a host of new treatments and medical tests for people like my former classmate.

Autism spectrum disorders—which are brain disorders that make socializing difficult, among other symptoms—are a growing health concern in the United States. And it’s viewed as a huge potential market for drugs and diagnostics. There are an estimated one in 110 children in the country who have autism spectrum disorders, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To date, there are neither approved drugs nor any easy ways to diagnose autism. Yet there have been discoveries at MIT and other research centers in the Boston area in recent years that have given people hope of improved treatments for autism—and reasons for investors to pump capital into startups focused on advancing these treatments.

“What we’re hoping to do is step into a complete void out there in terms of proven medical treatments for the condition,” says George Evans, the chairman and chief executive of Beverly, MA-based Cellceutix, which is seeking capital to advance its experimental compound for autism.

In the Boston area, which is rich with renowned academic centers and biotech companies, there are clusters of companies in almost every kind of disease: cancer, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular conditions, and on and on. However, there appear to be a particularly high proportion of recent entrants in the area’s budding autism cluster, which tells me that I probably would have had trouble compiling much of a list of such firms back, say, in the early 1990s.

Here’s an alphabetized list of startups and research organizations in the Boston area that are trying to address the unmet medical needs of people with autism:

Affectiva
Waltham, MA

This MIT spin-off is developing the “Q Sensor,” which detects electrical signals on … Next Page »

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