The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is set to launch a new study into how exposure to environmental toxins at a young age may affect autism, obesity, and certain other childhood disorders. A previous study failed to reach its goals.
NIH has awarded $144 million in new grants in September to a team of University of South Carolina (USC) and University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers “to develop new tools and measures that can be used to investigate more effectively environmental exposures from the womb through later years in a child’s life,” according to the agency’s website.
The goal is “really to understand that interplay between the environment and genetics and behavior that play out to determine whether a child ends up healthy or not,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH’s director.
The Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) study is a 4-year project aimed at examining the relationship between environmental exposures in the womb and early childhood and its impact on 4 specific areas: asthma and other airway disorders; obesity; neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and learning disability; and birth defects and other infant health outcomes.
Researchers had previously attempted to track 100,000 children from womb to adulthood, but Collins cancelled that study a year ago, following years of planning and pilot-testing, after scientific advisers concluded it was too weighty to work.
Rather than start from scratch by enlisting participants, researchers that are already in the midst of conducting child health studies can apply to expand them, using new technologies to measure even small environmental exposures that would be analyzed at NIH-designated labs as part of the ECHO study. A scientist studying asthma triggers, for example, might use wearable monitors to determine what triggers a child’s asthma attacks, or compare pollution sensors with inhaler use.
Once a child collects enough accurate data, it can be transmitted to the cloud, where the information can be transferred to that child’s electronic health record.
The wearable device will also collect weather information, air quality, pollen count and other data from the child’s home, school, and other locations. The data recorded by these devices could be compared against the child’s health data and could be used to alert caregivers to conditions ripe for triggering an asthma attack.
The platform will also store data from asthma attacks in order to provide healthcare providers with trends that are unique to each child.
“We are pursuing a new approach to achieve the goals of the former National Children’s Study,” NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence A. Tabak, DD., PhD, who has led the planning for the study’s restructuring, said in the press release. “The ECHO program will capitalize on existing participant populations, support approaches that evolve with the science and take advantage of the growing number of clinical research networks and technology advances.”
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.