Luna co-leads GI study to offer hope for son, children with autism spectrum disorders


Have you ever wondered why life leads us down certain career paths? For Dr. Ruth Ann Luna, the answer is obvious – her immense curiosity and passion for research to improve the quality of life for sick children.

As director of medical metagenomics at Texas Children’s Microbiome Center, Luna focuses much of her research on the link between disturbances in the gut microbiome – bacterial communities in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract – and GI symptoms in children.

Her quest for answers goes far beyond her role as an astute scientist. One of her biggest motivators is her 6-year-old son, Kellen, who has autism accompanied by significant GI problems – a common complaint among children with autism spectrum disorders.

22515autisminside495“When Autism Speaks announced its GI and Neurobehavioral Processes grant almost a year ago, I recognized it as the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Luna, an assistant professor of pathology at Baylor College of Medicine. “I was in awe when I found out we were awarded this funding to advance autism research.”

With the support of a $1.4 million, three-year grant, Luna and her colleagues at Texas Children’s and Baylor will embark on a comprehensive, multi-center study to determine if a biological connection exists between autism and GI disorders.

“Previous research has shown that gastrointestinal problems are more common among individuals with autism and may worsen behavioral problems,” said Texas Children’s Pathologist-in-Chief Dr. James Versalovic, the Milton J. Finegold professor of pathology at Baylor and director of Texas Children’s Microbiome Center.

Co-led by Luna and Versalovic, scientists in the Microbiome Center will evaluate behavior, GI symptoms, the microbiome and the metabolome, all in the hopes of identifying biomarkers of abdominal pain, understanding the impact of the gut-brain-microbiome axis and determining metabolic disturbances in autism.

“There are inherent differences in the guts of children with autism,” Luna said. “By analyzing all of these factors, we hope to develop better ways to diagnose and treat gastrointestinal issues in children with autism.”

The autism study will enroll 375 children ages 4 through 12 at Texas Children’s, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

Children with autism – with and without GI symptoms – and their unaffected siblings, and children without autism, with and without GI symptoms, are currently being recruited for the study.

“The data gleaned from our research will benefit my son and other families who have children with autism, especially those children with limited verbal abilities” Luna said. “This amazing opportunity to positively impact lives is what makes my job extremely fulfilling.”

For more information or to enroll in the Microbiome Center’s autism and GI study, contact Luna at Ext. 4-1894 or raluna@texaschildrens.org.