Walter and Lillian Cantor Foundation's generosity drives autism research at UT Soutwestern

Foundation's sustained giving supports research linking KDM5A gene with autism and defective speech

The statistics paint a sobering picture. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 54 U.S. children are identified with autism.

Jolene Cantor was one of those children. By age three, her social and communication skills were severely limited, which are often the tell-tale signs of the developmental disorder.

“It is hard to fund risky projects, but the Foundation believed in us, and their support was critical to jump-starting the program.”

Dr. Maria ChahrourAssistant Professor
UT Southwestern Medical Center

Inspired by their daughter’s condition, Walter and Lillian Cantor started the non-profit Autistic Care, a school program in Florida for those with severe learning disabilities.

The couple’s other daughter, Beverley Block, continues to run the organization today.

“We changed the name to the Walter and Lillian Cantor Foundation in 2019 as a legacy to my parents, who worked diligently to help autistic adults in the name of my sister,” said Mrs. Block, the Foundation’s President.

In the years since, the organization’s mission has crystallized around supporting autism research.

“We were determined to advance through research the understanding of the causes of autism to eventually lead to remedies, treatments, and even cures,” said Alan Block, who serves on the Foundation’s board and is married to Mrs. Block.

This drive spurred the Foundation to support one of UT Southwestern Medical Center’s most ambitious autism research initiatives led by Maria Chahrour, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Psychiatry in the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development.

Dr. Maria Chahrour
Dr. Maria Chahrour UT Southwestern Medical Center
Dr. Bruce Beutler
Dr. Bruce Beutler UT Southwestern Medical Center

The Blocks met Dr. Chahrour in 2019. Soon after, the Foundation made its first gift of $100,000 to UT Southwestern.

It was extremely exciting to get to know Dr. Chahrour and to familiarize ourselves with the genetic basis of her research,” said Mrs. Block. “The science she would pursue with our gift resonated completely with us.”

Dr. Chahrour collaborated on the project with Dr. Bruce Beutler, a Nobel Laureate and Director of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense at UT Southwestern. Together, they performed the first successful forward genetic screen for autism genes on mice. Adapting a classic research technique, the scientists analyzed hundreds of mice with vocalization defects, looking for genetic mutations.

Eventually, they found the culprit: a gene called KDM5A.

Building on their findings, Dr. Chahrour linked the KDM5A gene to autism and defective speech in humans, expanding the search for other genetic mutations in autism patients as well as those who lack the ability to speak altogether.

Last month, the Walter and Lillian Canter Foundation made a second donation of $100,000 to UT Southwestern. The unrestricted gift will provide Dr. Chahrour with flexible funding to further research the KDM5A gene, with the hope of understanding how it acts as a master regulator of other genes.

"This was quite a risky project,” said Dr. Chahrour. “It is hard to fund risky projects, but the Foundation believed in us, and their support was critical to jump-starting the program. I am extremely grateful for their generosity.”

Through its support of UT Southwestern and Dr. Chahrour’s research, the Foundation’s philanthropy has the potential to impact the entire Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“They want to support the entire autism genetics research program, which includes doing genome sequencing in DFW families with autism,” said Dr. Chahrour.

Such findings have the potential to reach far beyond North Texas.

"There is no question in our minds,” said Mr. Block, “What Dr. Chahrour is doing is exceedingly important, and we are exceedingly proud to be part of it.”

  • Dr. Beutler holds the Raymond and Ellen Willie Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research, in Honor of Laverne and Raymond Willie, Sr.