The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced $157 million in awards to several leading institutions, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to launch a seven-year initiative called Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO). ECHO will investigate how exposure to environmental factors in early development – from conception through early childhood – can influence the health of children and adolescents.
[Photo: A grant co-led by UNC’s Dr. Rebecca Fry (center) will investigate how exposure to environmental factors in early development influences the health of children and adolescents. Children’s photos courtesy nih.gov.]
UNC, which was awarded $5 million over two years by the NIH – with the potential for $33 million over seven years – will join several other universities to enroll more than 50,000 children from diverse racial, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds to become part of the ECHO consortium. Planned studies will analyze existing data, as well as follow children over time, to address the early environmental origins of ECHO’s health outcome areas, including upper and lower airway health and development, obesity, and brain and nervous system development.
Dr. Rebecca Fry, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering and director of the UNC Superfund Research Program in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, is the co-principal investigator on the UNC ECHO grant. She will lead the initiative alongside principal investigator Dr. Michael O’Shea, division chief of neonatal-perinatal medicine in the Department of Pediatrics in the UNC School of Medicine. Another key researcher from the Gillings School is Dr. Sonia Davis, director of the Collaborative Studies Coordinating Center in the biostatistics department.
“This research is paradigm-shifting in its focus on the placental epigenome as a driver of children’s health,” Fry said. “The ECHO studies have the potential to identify key environmental influences and pathways to help us prevent disease in children.”
The NIH award 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. A critical component of ECHO will be using the NIH-funded Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) program to build state-of-the art pediatric clinical research networks in rural and medically underserved areas, so that children from these communities can participate in clinical trials.
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 present in neighborhoods, to societal factors such as stress, to individual behaviors like sleep and diet. These exposures may affect any number of biological processes, such as the expression of genes or development of the immune system.