Exploring the genetic foundations of human behaviour


Exploring the genetic foundations of human behaviour

Award winning story reveals how big data sheds new light on the human brain


Montreal May 08, 2015 — Autism can be an all too obvious condition to identify but its underlying cause remains a mystery. Now tantalizing clues are starting to emerge from an ambitious project that has been collecting detailed genetic information about how the brain develops and functions. Researchers at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children have been mining the massive database created for the Brainspan Atlas, which is an American initiative to map the human brain’s biochemical activity to an unprecedented degree. Their findings have established new links between a key set of genes and the appearance of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).


In fact, these unique genetic features may represent even more than the roots of ASD. They could be the distinguishing characteristic of modern human beings, the core of what makes us different from now extinct relatives such as Neanderthals as well as non-human primates. In this way we may finally be able to understand our evolutionary nature even as we learn to deal with how problems like autism conflict with that nature.


Globe and Mail science writer Ivan Semeniuk travelled to the Seattle headquarters of the Brainspan Atlas in order to assemble a feature story about this project. The resulting article, “The Hunt for Humanity”, is being honoured with this year’s Sanofi Pasteur Medal of Excellence in Health Research Journalism.


“This is a high quality report,” said one of the award judges, referring to Semeniuk’s account of the work to determine which genes were active during a human being’s fetal development. Another judge highlighted the clear explanation of how big data, imaging and genetic analysis together explained ASD in evolutionary terms.


CHR Past President Patricia Guyda adds that it would be satisfying enough to gain insight into the nature of ASD. “However, this research also offers us an extraordinary perspective on who we are as a species,” she says. “This is an outstanding example of why we should continue to support science dedicated to discovery as well as applied solutions.”


CHR launched the Sanofi Pasteur Medal of Excellence in Health Research Journalism in 1995, and administers the selection process. Sponsored by Sanofi Pasteur Limited, Canada's premier vaccine company, the inaugural medal recipient was Globe & Mail science reporter Stephen Strauss for his longstanding contribution to promoting public awareness of science. Other recent awardees include Paul Webster for his work in Vancouver Magazine, Marine Corniou for her work in Québec Science magazine and François Bouthillette a journalist at Radio-Canada.


“As a company that is built on over a century of science, Sanofi Pasteur is pleased to be associated with this prestigious award that recognizes excellence in science journalism,” says Nancy Simpson, Director, Communications at Sanofi Pasteur Limited.


As part of the award, Semeniuk will receive a plaque and a $2,500 bursary on June 20, 2015, during the Canadian Science Writers’ Association annual general meeting in Saskatoon.


Canadians for Health Research (CHR) is a nonprofit organization committed to promoting the stability and quality of Canadian health research.  It fosters communication between health researchers, the government and the Canadian public, and publishes a quarterly magazine entitled Future Health.  For more information, or to become a member, please visit the CHR website at http://www.chrcrm.org.


About Sanofi


Sanofi, an integrated global healthcare leader, discovers, develops and distributes therapeutic solutions focused on patients’ needs. Sanofi has core strengths in the field of healthcare with seven growth platforms: diabetes solutions, human vaccines, innovative drugs, consumer healthcare, emerging markets, animal health and the new Genzyme. Sanofi is listed in Paris (EURONEXT: SAN) and in New York (NYSE: SNY).


Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of Sanofi, provides more than 1 billion doses of vaccine each year, making it possible to immunize more than 500 million people across the globe. A world leader in the vaccine industry, Sanofi Pasteur offers the broadest range of vaccines protecting against 20 infectious diseases. The company's heritage, to create vaccines that protect life, dates back more than a century. Sanofi Pasteur is the largest company entirely dedicated to vaccines. Every day, the company invests more than EUR 1 million in research and development. For more information, please visit: www.sanofipasteur.com or www.sanofipasteur.ca


For more information, please contact:


Patricia Guyda                                                Nancy Simpson                     

CHR                                                                Director, Communications

Montreal, QC                                                 Sanofi Pasteur Limited

                                                                        Toronto, Ontario

514-398-7478                                                  416-667-2955

pguyda@chrcrm.org                                      nancy.simpson@sanofipasteur.com