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Each year, the National Fragile X Foundation funds one or more summer student research fellowships at $2500 each through the Summer Student Fellowship Research Fund. The student’s work can be in the area of Fragile X syndrome (FXS), Fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome (FXTAS) or Fragile X-associated primary ovarian insufficiency (FXPOI). This award is meant to introduce undergraduate students, or students in professional training programs, to research in the Fragile X field, by providing funding for a summer project. We understand the importance of investing in the future of Fragile X, and this award is part of our commitment to fostering the researchers of tomorrow.

Below are this year’s recipients, along with their project titles. In the fall, we will report back with summaries of their findings:

Social Gaze Differences in Fragile X Syndrome and Idiopathic Autism Spectrum Disorder

Ellie Eckert (Supervisor: Craig Erickson, MD)

There are a number of noted similar behaviors and social impairments between individuals with Fragile X syndrome and Autism spectrum disorder, so much so that roughly 30% of children with FXS also receive a diagnosis of autism. This study will investigate the fundamental differences in mechanisms that drive these behavioral features seen in both FXS and ASD, and may provide the basis to develop tools that will accurately measure social deficits specific to FXS. These findings will allow for future investigation into distinguishing features between FXS and ASD that may aid in accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment.

Social Reward Learning in Human Patients with Autism

Ndeye Marieme Ndiaye (Supervisor: Gül Dölen, MD, PhD)

The recent development of a human version of the conditioned place preference (CPP) assay we use to measure the rewarding properties of social interactions in mice, dramatically improves the translational validity of neural mechanisms and therapeutic targets uncovered using this assay. Preliminary data collected in the Dölen lab indicates that FMR1 knockout autism and Fragile X model mice have impaired social reward learning. In collaboration with the Thompson lab, I will conduct experiments to test the hypothesis that patients with Fragile X and autism have a similar impairment in social reward learning, using the human version of the social CPP assay.

Genomic Editing of FMR1 Premutation in Human Fibroblast Cell Lines via Delivery of Purified Cas9 Ribonucleoproteins

Marwa Zafarullah (Supervisor: Flora Tassone, PhD)

This study will help us to better understand the impact of the CGG repeats on the different clinical premutation phenotypes and the molecular mechanisms behind the development of Fragile X-associated disorders. The CRISPR Cas9 technology has a profound impact on research efforts including identification of genes as well as the development of new disease models. The genome editing by transient expression of Cas9 (as RNP) will permit the consideration of a range of delivery options for therapeutic applications. In the future, with the optimization of suitable delivery system and proper assessment of specificity, we can clinically translate this study for the therapeutic editing in the Fragile X-associated disorders.