The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has granted nearly $144 million to develop new tools and measures to help investigate more effectively environmental exposures from the womb through later years in a child’s life.
These projects will enhance the next phase of research on the effects of environmental exposures on child health and development, the NIH said in its announcement on Monday..
“Technology advances have become a powerful driver in studying and understanding the start and spread of disease,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
“These projects will expand the toolbox available to researchers to improve our ability to characterize environmental exposures, understand how environmental exposures affect in utero development and function, and bolster the infrastructure for exposure research.”
The NIH has explained that environmental exposures are a leading cause of morbidity and mortality for mothers and children worldwide. These exposures encompass a number of factors, ranging from chemical and biological factors such as air pollution, pesticides and infectious diseases, to psychosocial factors such as education, stress and neglect. Exposures during crucial developmental windows, including conception and pregnancy, early childhood and puberty, can have long lasting effects, NIH notes.
According to NIH, these research projects, funded with fiscal year 2015 dollars, are designed to provide researchers with an expanded range of tools to accurately measure, record and analyze environmental exposures. Furthermore, greater accuracy will help improve our understanding of how these exposures change human biology to affect child health and development. Such research will continue to inform programs aimed at developing strategies to reduce the risk of childhood illnesses and disabilities.
According to NIH, the three initiatives for these new awards are:
Develop new tools to enhance studies of environmental influences of pediatric diseases. As part of this initiative, researchers will develop sensor-based, integrated health monitoring systems through a program called Pediatric Research using Integrated Sensor Monitoring Systems. NIH says that these systems will allow researchers to measure environmental, physiological and behavioral factors in epidemiological studies in children. This initiative will also establish the Children’s Health and Exposure Analysis Resource to provide the NIH-funded research community access to laboratory and statistical analyses to add or expand environmental exposures as a component of their research. Also, through the Pediatric Patient Reported Outcomes in Chronic Diseases Consortium, as NIH says, researchers will capitalize on recent advances in the science of patient-reported outcomes by capturing the voice and experience of children and their families living with a variety of chronic diseases and conditions.
Study the influence of the environment on in utero development to identify the cause of future diseases and conditions. A major component of this initiative is the extension of the Human Placenta Project, which aims to support the initial stages of development of next-generation placental imaging and assessment technologies and methods. The focus of this research is on identifying specific technology gaps and developing new technologies or new applications of current technologies to explore the effects of environmental factors on placental structure and function throughout pregnancy. In addition, this initiative will expand the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences’ Tox21 program to investigate the effects of environmental chemicals on human development using robotic screening of cultured cells.
Expand the examination of environmental influences on later child development by leveraging existing programs. This initiative seeks to supplement existing research grants to facilitate collaborative efforts to add or enhance high-dimensional molecular analysis approaches in existing pregnancy, birth and children’s environmental health populations.
Projects involve five NIH institutes and centers: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
These projects will advance the tools and knowledge base for a new multi-year initiative that will launch in fiscal year 2016 called the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program. The effort is an alternative approach to the former National Children’s Study, which NIH terminated in December 2014.
NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., who has led the planning for redirection, said:
“We are pursuing a new approach to achieve the goals of the former National Children’s Study. 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.”