Dr. Adife Gulhan Ercan-Sencicek is an instructor at the Masonic Medical Research Institute, and Dr. Maria Kontaridis is its executive director.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped the institute’s studies.

“It’s very exciting to work in this collaborative environment, not only Dr. Kontaridis, but also other principal investigators,” said Dr. Gulhan Ercan-Sencicek.

Ercan-Sencicek is studying if there’s a relationship between heart disease and autism. The question she’s trying to answer is: do the same mechanisms that cause heart disease also contribute to causing autism?

“Gulhan’s expertise in the neuronal space, along with my background in the cardiovascular space, made it possible for us to combine forces so we could address this question more directly,” said Dr. Kontaridis.

And now their research is getting a boost from the American Heart Association, thanks to a grant of about $300,000.

The scientists are taking skin or blood cells, differentiating them from their original jobs, and making them grow as cells in other organs such as a brain or heart.

“We can use this technology to really understand and mimic human disease without using humans,” said Dr. Kontaridis.

Right now the team is only collecting preliminary data.

It’s too soon to say what this could mean for people with autism, but the hope is to get future grants to finish the project.