Rochester Participates in Landmark Children’s Study

University Awarded Long-term Seat in Federal Health Research Program

May 07, 2009

Families in the Rochester area will be able to take part in the nation’s largest study of the health and well-being of children from birth to age 21, through a multimillion federal grant awarded to the University of Rochester Medical Center.

The National Children’s Study is tracking a representative sample of 100,000 children in 105 locations. The goal is to improve the health of all youngsters by examining how genes and the environment interact to influence growth and development. Participants would agree to provide blood, urine and hair samples, and to allow researchers into their homes periodically to test water, dust, and other parts of the environment. About 1,000 families from Monroe County will be asked to participate.

The URMC has received $5.4 million for the first five years of involvement in the study, with more funding to come later. The National Institutes of Health is sponsoring the program.

The national study took years to plan, and the Rochester portion is starting with a lengthy planning period as well. Enrollment of local children will not begin until 2012, said Shanna H. Swan, Ph.D., principal investigator, professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Environmental Medicine, and director of the URMC’s Center for Reproductive Epidemiology.

“We’re very excited to be part of one of the nation’s most prized research initiatives,” Swan said. “This landmark study will provide definitive answers on how early life exposures affect the growth and development of children, both in Rochester and across the country. “

Swan will work closely with co-investigator Peter Szilagyi, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of Pediatrics and Community and Preventive Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Division Chief of General Pediatrics at the Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong.

Researchers are particularly interested in knowing more about the factors influencing such conditions as autism, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, birth defects, diabetes, asthma, and obesity.

In addition, more than 500,000 premature infants are born each year, which puts those children at risk for early death and a variety of health problems. Health care costs for preterm infants total $26 billion annually.

“This study has the potential to significantly reduce the burden of preterm birth and birth defects,” Szilagyi said.

Congress authorized the project in 2000, and since then it has been carried out by two NIH institutes, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The University of Rochester is a study subcontractor for the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where the principal investigator in New York and New Jersey is Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., professor and chairman, Department of Community & Preventive Medicine, professor of Pediatrics and director of the Children's Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai.

Locally, URMC will carry out the study in a partnership with several community groups, including the Community Advisory Council. Nancy Bennett, M.D., professor of Medicine and Community and Preventive Medicine at URMC and director of the Center for Community Health, will be a team leader in community outreach. Bennett is also deputy director of the Monroe County Department of Public Health.

The study is expected to yield information throughout its duration. For example, recruitment will begin with women who are planning a pregnancy, and within a few years the study could provide valuable data about the environmental effects on pregnancy and birth.

“This type of collaborative effort will undoubtedly help us link what we find in the scientific laboratory to what we observe socially about children, and allow us to establish ways to intervene early and improve health,” Swan added.

The study was designed to encompass rural, urban and suburban populations. The first phase of national recruitment, announced in January 2009, began in communities as diverse as Duplin County, N.C., and Queens, N.Y. Duplin is sparsely populated, with many hog and turkey farms and a large Hispanic population. Queens is home to more than 2 million people, thousands of which are immigrants, and many of whom have a host of health problems often seen in cities, such as asthma and diabetes.

At this point, Szilagyi, Swan and several other colleagues are assessing how they will enroll local families in the study, and from what geographic areas in Monroe County.

Additional information about the National Children’s Study is available from http://www.nationalchildrensstudy.gov.

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