Promise for new drug for Fragile X

Gardiner Harris

An experimental drug succeeded in a small clinical trial in bringing about what the researchers called substantial improvements in the behaviors associated with retardation and autism in people with fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited cause of these mental disabilities.

The surprising results, disclosed in an interview this week by Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant that makes the drug, grew out of three decades of painstaking genetic research, leaps in the understanding of how the brain works, the advocacy of families who refused to give up, and a chance meeting between two scientists who mistakenly showed up at the same conference.

“Just three years ago, I would have said that mental retardation is a disability needing rehab, not a disorder needing medication,” said Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who was told of the Novartis trial results. “Any positive results from clinical trials will be amazingly hopeful.”

Dr. Mark C. Fishman, president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, cautioned against too much optimism. The trial involved only a few dozen patients, only some of whom benefited from treatment. The drug is likely to be years away from being commercially available and could fail in further clinical trials, he said.

“We have been reluctant to make this public because we still need to do more experiments, do them correctly and in a bigger way,” Dr. Fishman said. “But our group feels pretty good about the data.”

If authenticated in further, larger trials, the results could also become a landmark in the field of autism research, since scientists speculated that the drug may help some patients with autism not caused by fragile X, perhaps becoming the first medicine to address autism’s core symptoms.

One child in five thousand is born with fragile X syndrome, with mental effects ranging from mild learning disabilities to retardation so profound that sufferers do not speak, and physical effects that include elongated faces, prominent jaws, big ears, and enlarged testes. It mostly affects boys and earned its name because, under a microscope, one arm of the X chromosome seems nearly broken, with part hanging by a thread.

Full article from the New York Times here

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