Saliva may hold the key to understanding and ultimately treating gastrointestinal (GI) disturbance in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A recently published paper showed that specific RNA molecules in the saliva may serve as biomarkers for better understanding the etiology of GI disturbance and eventually guide targeted treatments. The paper titled “Saliva RNA biomarkers of gastrointestinal dysfunction in children with autism and neurodevelopmental disorders: Potential implications for precision medicine,” was published recently in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.
Gastrointestinal disorders are common in children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD. However, to date there has not been a biologic link between these conditions that could help determine individualized therapies. The present multi-site study, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health to Quadrant Biosciences,1 focused on 1) identifying human and microbial RNA levels in saliva that were associated with GI disturbance; 2) investigating whether these relationships were impacted by child developmental status; and 3) determine if specific RNA “biomarkers” displayed unique expression patterns in particular GI disturbances (e.g., constipation) or with treatments (e.g., probiotics).
“We wanted to understand if there was a relationship between the various bacteria living in a child’s mouth, the RNA molecules being expressed by a child’s body, and the gastrointestinal symptoms a child was experiencing,” said Steve Hicks, MD, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine and one of the investigators on the study.
The researchers found that specific human and microbial RNA molecules displayed an interaction between developmental status and GI disturbance, potentially serving as biomarkers for the unique pathophysiology leading to elevated GI disturbance in children with ASD. In addition, they discovered a number of salivary RNAs whose levels differed between GI disturbance phenotypes–with microRNA differences between food intolerance and reflux groups being most common.
According to David Beversdorf, MD, professor of radiology, neurology, and psychological sciences at the University of Missouri and the principle investigator on the project, the importance of these findings is not just that patients with and without gastrointestinal disturbances differed in RNA expression, but identifying the biological targets of these RNA’s. “This begins to point in the direction of potential specific biological targets that might be of therapeutic benefit. As we begin to understand gastrointestinal problems in ASD, this could lead to targeted approaches based on precision medicine principles. I hope that in the future, we can expand our capacity in developing personalized medicine approaches to ASD.”
Dr Hicks agreed, “Identifying microRNA perturbations in the saliva of children with autism and gastrointestinal disturbances may allow researchers to develop novel treatments or track medication effectiveness.”