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By Traci Pedersen
Associate News Editor Last updated: 8 Aug 2018   ~ 2 min read

Although individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) appear to have a higher number of mutations in oncogenes (genes with the potential to cause cancer), they actually have lower rates of cancer, according to a new study at the University of Iowa.

The multidisciplinary team analyzed gene databases of patients with autism and found that autistic patients have significantly higher rates of DNA variation in oncogenes compared to a control group.

The researchers then followed up this finding with an analysis of electronic medical records (EMR) and discovered that patients with a diagnosis of autism are also much less likely to have a co-occurring diagnosis of cancer.

“It’s a very provocative result that makes sense on one level and is extremely perplexing on another,” says Benjamin Darbro, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medical genetics in the Stead Family Department of Pediatrics at the UI Carver College of Medicine.

The researchers compared 1,837 patients with autism spectrum disorder to 9,336 patients with any other diagnosis, and determined what proportion of each group of patients carried a cancer diagnosis. They found that for children and adults with ASD there appeared to be a protective effect against cancer.

Specifically, 1.3 percent of patients with ASD also had a diagnosis of cancer compared to 3.9 percent of the control patients. This protective effect was strongest for the youngest group of patients and decreased with age.

For ASD children under 14 years of age, the odds of having cancer were reduced by 94 percent compared to individuals in the same age range without autism. Both males and females with ASD demonstrated the protective effect.

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