How Does Your Environment Affect Your Child's Health? MUSC Part of NIH Effort to Find Out

Contact: Heather Woolwine

Sept 21, 2016

CHARLESTON, SC – The Medical University of South Carolina and Columbia University, New York, have been awarded more than $1.5 million in fiscal year 2016 to help launch a new National Institutes of Health initiative called Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO). The ECHO program will investigate how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development – from conception through early childhood – influences the health of children and adolescents. The NIH awarded $157 million in funds for the first fiscal year of the project (2016).

Over the course of the seven-year project, the MUSC and Columbia University-led ECHO Pediatric Cohort Program, called “Exposure Contributors to Child Health Originating from National Fetal Growth Study” (ECCHO-NFGS), is designed to fund existing pediatric cohorts with a goal of enrolling 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, serving as a consortium resource for laboratory and statistical analyses of personal environmental exposures in existing and future collections of biological samples. The ECCHO-NFGS study team includes scientists from public health, obstetrics, and pediatrics who will follow the children enrolled in the National Fetal Growth Study at 10 clinical centers throughout the US, including MUSC and Columbia.

John Vena, Ph.D., professor and founding chairman of the MUSC Department of Public Health Sciences and co-principal investigator of ECCHO-NFGS, said the overall ECHO program is meant to provide significant information about what environmental factors might be affecting the health and wellness of the country’s children so health care providers can provide better, more customized treatments and interventions for pediatric patients, and in addition contribute to better health and wellness for all children. “To have this many capable, brilliant researchers coming together in the interest of significantly determining what environmental risks are placing our children at most risk is a wonderful testament to the power of collective data and our determination to collaborate across institutions and state lines for the good of our nation’s children,” Vena said.

Experiences during sensitive developmental windows, including around the time of conception, later in pregnancy, and during infancy and early childhood, can have long-lasting effects on the health of children. These experiences encompass a broad range of exposures, from air pollution and chemicals in our neighborhoods, to societal factors such as stress, to individual behaviors like sleep and diet. They may act through any number of biological processes, for example, changes in the expression of genes or development of the immune system.

“This is a unique opportunity to gain insight into how the fetal in-utero environment can impact later life,” said Ronald Wapner, M.D., ECCHO-NFGS co-principal investigator and Columbia University professor of obstetrics & gynecology, maternal fetal medicine and reproductive genetics. “Over the last seven years, Columbia investigators have evaluated the trajectory of fetal growth as well as multiple maternal characteristics, such as nutrition, weight gain, and environmental exposure. This work was sentinel in having this cohort chosen for this important study of childhood development.”

All of the NIH awards announced today will build the infrastructure and capacity for the ECHO program to support multiple, synergistic longitudinal studies that extend and expand existing cohort studies of mothers and their children. ECHO research will focus on factors that may influence health outcomes around the time of birth as well as into later childhood and adolescence, including upper and lower airway health and development, obesity, and brain and nervous system development.

“I’m very excited to work with many of our nation’s best scientists to tackle vital unanswered questions about child health and development,” said ECHO Program Director Matthew W. Gillman, M.D. “I believe we have the right formula of cohorts, clinical trials and supporting resources, including a range of new tools and measures, to help figure out which factors may allow children to achieve the best health outcomes over their lifetimes.”

The ECHO infrastructure includes the following programmatic components: pediatric cohorts, coordinating center, data analysis center, Children’s Health and Exposure Analysis Resource core, patient-reported outcomes core, clinical sites for the IDeA (institutional developmental awards) States Pediatric Clinical Trial Network (MUSC will also participate in this effort) and data coordinating and operations center for the IDeA States Pediatric Clinical Trials Network. To learn more about ECHO program components and the awardees for each component, visit NIH Grants

“Every baby should have the best opportunity to remain healthy and thrive throughout childhood,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “ECHO will help us better understand the factors that contribute to optimal health in children.”

About MUSC

Founded in 1824 in Charleston, MUSC is the oldest medical school in the South, as well as the state’s only integrated, academic health sciences center with a unique charge to serve the state through education, research and patient care. Each year, MUSC educates and trains more than 3,000 students and more than 850 residents in six colleges: Dental Medicine, Graduate Studies, Health Professions, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy. The state’s leader in obtaining biomedical research funds, in fiscal year 2019, MUSC set a new high, bringing in more than $284 million. Find out more about our academic programs.

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