A UC Irvine psychologist who has been conducting research on a drug that may prevent autistic patients from injuring themselves was recently awarded more than half a million dollars to continue his work.
Dr. Curt Sandman, a professor in the UCI department of psychiatry and human behavior, is the principal investigator of a 12-member team that is studying the effects of Naltrexone, a drug that may subdue autistic patients who are prone to biting or beating themselves.
"A significant majority of patients who have not been treatable have responded favorably to this drug," he said. "The major effect is that it interrupts the addictive qualities of self-injury. It seems to alter the pain threshold and make them more sensitive to pain."
Sandman, who has been studying the drug since 1980, received $315,000 from the National Institutes of Health and $269,000 from the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA grant was issued from its so-called orphan drug program, which offers incentives for developing treatments for rare diseases.
"It is uncommon for the FDA to provide grants," said Brad Stone, an FDA spokesman. "The most frequent incentives the program provides are tax credits or exclusive sales rights."
Originally designed to restore respiratory functions to overdosed heroin addicts, the drug offers hope that self-abusive patients may be freed from physical restraints and even removed from restrictive institutions, said the project's co-director, Bill Hetrick.
The state may save hundreds of thousands of dollars in health care, since the cost of maintaining such a patient is over $80,000 a year. About 40% of residents institutionalized in California exhibit this behavior, Sandman said.
Sandman, who is also director of research for the state Developmental Research Institute at Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, said the drug blocks the body's nerve endings from processing endorphins, chemicals generated by the pituitary gland that relieve pain.
A developmental disorder of unknown origin, autism usually manifests itself by the age of 4 and impairs an individual's ability to relate to others. Symptoms may include social aloofness, language impairment, an insistence on routines, and mental retardation.
A small number of autistic children display unusual skills, such as reciting long lists of names or numbers and accurately drawing scenes from memory.