Landmark national research initiative to examine development of St. Louis kids

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is participating in the largest study of child and human health ever conducted in the United States.

The National Institutes of Health has selected the city of St. Louis and Macoupin County, Ill., as sites for the National Children’s Study, an extensive population-based study looking at the health and development of children by following them from before birth to adulthood. The School of Medicine is collaborating with Saint Louis University, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville School of Nursing, Southern Illinois University Medical School and St. Louis Battelle Memorial Institute.

The consortium is one of 22 new study centers added to the National Children’s Study, which will follow a representative sample of 100,000 children from before birth to age 21. The study seeks information to prevent and treat some of the nation’s most pressing health problems, including autism, birth defects, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. About 250 participants from the city of St. Louis and 250 participants from rural Macoupin County are expected to enroll for each of four years starting in 2009.

“The National Children’s Study is an investment in the future,” said Terry Leet, Ph.D., lead investigator of the St. Louis and Macoupin County study sites and chairman of the department of community health at Saint Louis University School of Public Health. “Examining the kinds of questions that influence the health and well-being of children is critically important to the entire community, whether you are a parent, grandparent or researcher. What we find could be a potential gold mine of data for scientists who are studying what causes diseases in children.”

Michael DeBaun, M.D., MPH, associate professor of pediatrics and biostatistics at Washington University School of Medicine, is co-principal investigator of the study.

“The National Children’s Study is an important step in setting the foundation for understanding the environmental and genetic determinants of pediatric and adult diseases,” DeBaun said. “We now have a unique opportunity coupled with a high level of responsibility to fulfill the mission of this important award for the next generation.”

To spearhead the St. Louis-area study, Saint Louis University received a $26 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and a consortium of federal agencies including the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The cost of the research is estimated at $3 billion over the next 25 years.

SIU School of Medicine in Springfield, Ill., will provide expertise and liaison to various health-care providers as SIU physicians offer both obstetrical and primary care services in central Illinois.

“This project offers the chance to put the St. Louis area and Macoupin County on the forefront of research into maternal and child health,” Leet said. “It also fosters collaboration between the region’s key research institutions.”

Researchers will gather data from homes and health clinics on a child’s genetic makeup and a number of biological, chemical, environmental, physical and psychosocial factors. Most of the money from the grant will be spent hiring data collectors for both sites.

The study begins either prior to conception or in the first trimester of pregnancy. The outcomes of pregnancies, such as preterm delivery, also will be evaluated.

Researchers will collect environmental samples from the air and water where children spend more than 30 hours a week to learn about potential exposures. They will analyze blood, urine, hair and fingernail samples from children. In addition, children will be screened for asthma, birth defects, diabetes, injury susceptibility, obesity and physical and mental development disorders.

From that repository of information, scientists can look at how certain factors alone or in combination with others affect pregnancy outcomes, child development and health and the likelihood of an adult to develop certain diseases.

Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.