New York Times starts controversy by linking autism with a cancer gene

The New York Times reports that a cancer gene also causes some cases of autism. The article, published August 11, states, “Some people with autism have mutated cancer or tumor genes that apparently caused their brain disorder.” Emily Willingham, writing for Forbes, challenges the accuracy of many statements made in this article. Willingham also criticizes the New York Times article for irresponsibly connecting autism with a fatal disease.
The focus of the New York Times article is a gene called PTEN. According to the National Institutes for Health, the PTEN gene “acts as a tumor suppressor … keeping cells from growing and dividing too rapidly or in an uncontrolled way.” Mutations of this gene are responsible for several disorders including Cowden Syndrome and Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome. PTEN gene mutations are also linked with several types of cancer including prostateand endometrial cancers.
The Forbes article
n the Forbes article of August 11, Willingham challenges the description of the PTEN gene as a “cancer gene” by New York Times writer Gina Kolata. The thrust of her disagreement is the failure of Kolata to distinguish people with autism and a PTEN gene mutation from the overall population of people with autism spectrum disorder. Willingham writes “the autism in question, according to all of the research involving this gene and other similar genes, is part of a syndrome of traits that includes a head circumference that is either significantly small (microcephaly) or significantly larger (macrocephaly) than typical. It comes with clinical signs other than autism …”
Willingham also raises concerns about the headline used for Kolata's article, which was "Autism’s Unexpected Link to Cancer Gene." She writes that Kolata's implication of a causative relationship between a cancer gene and autism will cause unnecessary distress to parents of children with autism. Willingham is also reproachful of Kolata's use of the terms "cancer gene" stating that "the gene is question isn’t just a `cancer gene`. It’s a gene that regulates the cell cycle, and changes in these genes can and do have effects that aren’t confined to cancer."
PTEN gene and autism
The medical research supports Willingham’s position. A May 2013 report in the European Journal of Human Genetics states that there is not a single “biochemical marker” for all individuals with autism. This research does however, identify PTEN mutations in some individuals with autism, but these individuals also have macrocephaly.
Another report from the University of Texas, states,“PTEN germline mutations are found in a small subset of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and accompanying macrocephaly.” Another study on PTEN mutations and autism found similar results. This study, published in Autism Research, also found PTEN mutations in some subjects with autism, but these individuals also had macrocephaly
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©Mary M Conneely T/A Advocacy in Action

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