The beginning of life is an incredibly delicate period. Not only do those first few days of life play an important role in the development of a human being, but gestation, infancy and childhood play an integral role in lifelong health. Most adult diseases have origins in that time period. Asthma, heart disease, diabetes – all have roots in early life and carry a heavy burden individuals, families and the health care system.
“We have just begun to scratch the surface of what so-called ‘diseases of aging’ have their origins in predictable or even preventable risk-imparting conditions or events of childhood,” said Nina F. Schor, M.D., Ph.D., William H. Eilinger Chair of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and pediatrician-in-chief of Golisano Children’s Hospital.
That is why the Department of Pediatrics at URMC is launching a new program to study how early life impacts adult health and what can be done to prevent disease. The Perinatal and Pediatric Origins of Disease (or PPOD, for short) program will be directed by Michael A. O’Reilly, Ph.D., Professor of Pediatrics, Environmental Medicine, and Oncology. O’Reilly’s research has focused on the harmful effects of oxygen on premature lungs, but he and colleagues in Pediatrics, Obstetrics, Environmental Medicine, Primary Care and Ophthalmology are interested in examining more than just lung biology.
“What starts in the lungs may not end there. We need to look at the effects of prematurity more broadly and look at the long-term effects of early birth and its treatments,” O’Reilly said “The March of Dimes estimates that prematurity costs society more than $26 million every year.”
Premature babies, which account for about 1 in 8 births, are more likely later in life to get sick with the respiratory illnesses, have vision problems, develop high blood pressure and have a developmental delay. Their asthma is not as easily treatable because it isn’t caused by an inflammation that responds to steroids; it is usually a structural problem within their lungs that may be caused by the very oxygen they were given to save their lives, O’Reilly said.
PPOD will begin with studying the effects of prematurity on the biology of the lung, but it is expected to grow to include research aimed at full-term infants, children and adolescents.
“For example, we hope to consider how childhood exposure to cigarette smoke or air pollution and lead or other toxic metals effects lung and brain development. Similarly, how maternal diet and environmental exposures impact fetal development,” O’Reilly said.
The program will include researchers and clinicians from many departments within the medical center with the goal of speeding effective treatments into use.