NIH grant addresses environmental influences on child health


The University of Michigan is part of a new research initiative to investigate how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development — from conception through early childhood — influences the health of children and adolescents.

A $4.8 million research grant from the National Institutes of Health was awarded to Michigan State University with collaborators from U-M, Wayne State University, Henry Ford Health System and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

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The grant will cover the first two-year phase of the seven-year project called the national Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes, or ECHO. It aims to study factors that may influence health outcomes around the time of birth, as well as into later childhood and adolescence. Some of the health issues studied will include upper and lower airway health and development, obesity, and brain and nervous system development.

“We are very excited to be joining Michigan State University and our other partners around the state in a major effort to understand the effects of pollution, nutrition and infection on child health,” said Michael Elliott, co-principal investigator and professor of biostatistics at the School of Public Health, and research professor at the Institute for Social Research.

He noted this diverse team of researchers will pick up where they left off with the National Children’s Study to begin to better understand how to help pressing childhood health concerns such as autism spectrum disorders, low birth weight and childhood obesity.

The Michigan ECHO group is one of the study’s national pediatric cohorts. Ten hospitals and 20 clinics throughout Michigan’s Lower Peninsula will participate in the study. U-M, MSU and WSU make up the state’s University Research Corridor.

Nigel Paneth, MSU University Distinguished Professor of epidemiology and biostatistics in the College of Human Medicine, will lead the group of five co-principal investigators.

“This all-Michigan research initiative may be the only population-based sampling of pregnant women in the ECHO study,” Paneth said. “The results should provide critical information about prenatal environmental influences and the health of children, contributing to public policy formulations in maternal and child health, and ultimately improving the public health of mothers and children in Michigan.”

“Innovative to our approach is the use of newborn dried blood spots from the Michigan Neonatal Biobank, a unique resource for the assessment of both perinatal exposures and epigenetic markers,” said Dana Dolinoy, associate professor of environmental health sciences and of nutritional sciences at SPH.

The Wayne State University co-principal investigator is Douglas Ruden, co-director of the Exposures Signatures Core Facility in the Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors. His team will work to determine whether environmental exposures, such as lead and organic pollutants, cause changes in the “epigenome” of the DNA in the children.

“My research team has studied lead toxicity in Detroit for over 10 years and last year published a research paper in Scientific Reports that showed that grandmaternal exposure to lead can alter the DNA in the grandchildren,” Ruden said. “This was the first demonstration of multigenerational effects of lead poisoning.”

Charles Barone, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Henry Ford Health System, says the study has the potential to provide a trove of valuable information about children’s health and development.

“We know from research done by Henry Ford Health System and others that early life environmental exposures and pregnancy factors influence the development of a child’s immune system,” Barone said. “The data we collect for the ECHO study has the potential to advance that research, and lead to ways to guide health practice and improve the future health of children.”

“Not only is this grant a tremendous opportunity to further study the effects of environmental issues on the early development of our children, but it also provides an excellent opportunity to translate those findings into solid health policy that will protect our youth into the future,” said Glenn Copeland, state registrar with Health and Human Services.

The national goal for the ECHO study is to enroll more than 50,000 children from diverse racial, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds to become part of the ECHO consortium. These cohort studies will analyze existing data as well as follow the children over time to address the early environmental origins of at least one of ECHO’s health outcome areas. Each cohort will participate with the others to combine data that are collected in a standardized way across the consortium.


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