UF College of Medicine – Jacksonville to establish Precision Autism Center of Excellence

Advancing care for children and adults with autism received a critical boost with the recent announcement of a $500,000 award for the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville. The funding will be used to establish a Precision Autism Center of Excellence at UF Health Jacksonville, which will serve as a regional and national resource for individuals with autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders. 

This award is part of UF President Ben Sasse’s ongoing effort to support vital projects using strategic funds from the Florida Legislature. Several weeks ago, UF also announced a $1.1-million award for the creation of the Center for Convening Transformative Care to enhance patient care in Northeast Florida.  

“UF has an incredible opportunity to do some life-changing work. Treating neurodevelopmental disorders in children and adults is work that deserves the utmost attention and support,” Sasse said. “The Precision Autism Center of Excellence will help UF increase its external research into this field, all while garnering support from pharmaceutical and diagnostic genomics companies.”  

David Ledbetter, Ph.D. – a medical geneticist in the Office of Research Affairs, as well as the pediatrics and psychiatry departments at UF – wrote the proposal for the Precision Autism Center of Excellence. He envisions a center that will provide enhanced care for individuals with autism and related disorders, including intellectual disabilities, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and congenital hydrocephalus. The initial focus will be on children, though adult care will also be included.  

“Many of these children have underlying, rare genetic conditions that can now be readily identified by ‘reading’ their DNA sequence,” Ledbetter said. “Knowledge of each child’s specific genetic condition improves management and treatment, provides more accurate prognosis regarding future health problems, and informs reproductive planning for parents and relatives. In addition to improving care, the center will enhance training programs in neurodevelopmental pediatrics, medical genetics, and genetic counseling.” 

The Precision Autism Center of Excellence is expected to expand the clinical capacity for diagnostic evaluation, management, and treatment, and significantly reduce the often-lengthy wait times at specialty clinics. 

Linda R. Edwards, M.D., dean of the College of Medicine – Jacksonville and an associate professor of medicine, believes the center will have a significant impact in the local community and beyond. 

“We are thrilled to be receiving this opportunity to provide additional support to individuals with autism,” Edwards said. “As the number of children born with autism and related disorders continues to rise, our capacity to diagnose and offer treatment has been stretched. Even after diagnosis, access to needed services often gets delayed. Knowing that the center will enhance our capacity to offer care adds hope and excitement for the future.” 

Patients also will benefit from comprehensive, multidisciplinary clinical services, including developmental pediatrics, genetics, psychiatry, psychology, neurology, physical medicine and rehabilitation, speech and language, and applied behavior analysis. This approach will allow timely genome sequencing (which is now the standard of care) to be done early in the diagnostic evaluation process to positively impact management, prognosis, and treatment. Additional advantages of the center include increased external research funding and industry support. 

“There is no doubt that this project will create new avenues of care that will advance our mission and improve the well-being of our community,” Edwards said. “The center provides great hope to empower individuals with autism and related disorders to reach their potential.”