“Hi, Jakob 1. I’m Jake,” says Jake Litvag. The energetic 16-year-old has named a furry lab creature after him. The mouse has the same genetic abnormality Jake has. Scientists hope to discover ways to treat Jake’s rare disorder—and solve the larger puzzle of autism.
God made every human unique. He numbers every hair on every head and understands every cell in the body. (Luke 12:7) He also made humans to yearn for knowledge about diseases and disorders. Many want to use what they learn in mercy to help fellow image bearers.
Jake’s parents, Joe and Lisa Litvag, realized early on that Jake wasn’t reaching childhood milestones. He couldn’t walk without assistance until he was four. He struggled to string sentences together in first grade.
At first, no one understood why. Jake was restless and impulsive but also social, warm, and funny. It took until he was age five to get a firm diagnosis of autism.
Dr. John Constantino, an autism genetics expert, began seeing Jake as a patient. He proposed genetic testing. Tests revealed a missing copy of the MYT1L gene—the one believed to cause some autism cases.
Eventually, the Litvags agreed to let Constantino use Jake’s blood for research. So scientists grew stem cells engineered from Jake’s blood. They wanted to mimic Jake’s condition in mice. Jakob 1 and other lab mice are the first in the world to mirror the condition with the missing gene that causes Jake’s specific type of autism.
Since starting their research about three years ago, scientists have bred around 100 mice with Jake’s mutation. They’re now using the great-great grandchildren of the first rodent they engineered.
Scientists hope data from Jakob 1 and his mousy friends could someday lead to medicines or gene therapies to help people with all forms of autism.
Jake knows he inspired the work. That helps him see autism as something to be proud of rather than something that makes him different.
On a trip to the animal lab, Lisa Litvag tears up knowing that her son’s cells could help other kids.
After meeting the mice, the family visits another lab. Jake peers through a microscope at his blue-stained stem cells.
“That’s me! That’s cool stuff. I never saw anything like that in my life,” he says.
“What do we live this life for?” asks Joe Litvag. “It’s ultimately to try to, in one way, shape, or form, be of service to others.”
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. — Philippians 2:4
Why? God’s hand is displayed in every aspect of life—even those we find difficult to accept—and He promises that He works all things for good.