Irish scientists have signed a €4.8m research deal with a British pharmaceutical company to develop new drugs which target the gut and treat symptoms of autism.

The APC Microbiome Institute (APC) at University College Cork confirmed Friday that it will collaborate with 4D pharma on the four-year project.

It will focus on the discovery and development of live biotherapeutics — drugs based on living micro-organisms found in the gut — for the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and associated disorders.

The programme, which will create and support several hi-tech jobs in Cork, will focus on potential treatments which have already been identified by the company.

“The project will be research-driven to identify potential novel bacteria that might have positive effects on brain and behaviour,” he said, but it could be years before any potential treatments are ready for clinical trials.

The prevalence of ASD has been rising steadily since the 1960s, with an estimated one in 70 children diagnosed with the condition.

Although the genetic basis of a minority of cases is known, the disease pathways and mechanisms are poorly understood, which presents a real challenge to those working on the development of new drug treatments.

Current pharmaceutical treatments focus on managing the abnormal behaviour associated with autism.

More than half of the children in the US who are diagnosed with ASD are prescribed psychoactive drugs or anticonvulsants, with the most common drug types including antipsychotics, stimulants, and antidepressants.

There are only two FDA- approved drugs for treating symptoms of ASD. Both are antipsychotics originally approved for other neurological conditions and both have significant side-effects.

The ASD therapeutics market was worth $1.44bn (€1.3bn) in 2012, with the US accounting for 98% of the market. Dr Fergus Shanahan, director of the APC and Professor of Medicine at UCC, said the APC Microbiome Institute has a long history of cutting-edge research on the links between the brain, micro-organisms in the gut, and their impact on public health.

“This collaboration will allow our teams to work together to bring new, badly-needed treatment approaches for people with ASD,” he said.

Duncan Peyton, 4D’s chief executive officer, said: “We believe the collaboration with the APC will further the understanding and treatment of diseases such as ASD with live biotherapeutics and reinforce the emergence of this new therapeutic class.”