The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched new initiatives to better understand how a child’s early environment may affect health and development. On Sept. 21, the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program announced $157 million in the first year of grants for studies on environmental exposures and children’s health over time.
ECHO will be one of many programs to use a new NIEHS resource called the Children’s Health Exposure Analysis Resource(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/exposure/chear/index.cfm) (CHEAR), which was launched Sept. 30. CHEAR enables NIH-funded scientists who are studying children’s health to add analysis of environmental exposures to their research, at no additional cost. This resource will expand the number of researchers studying children’s environmental health.
“Decades of research at NIEHS have shown that the environment matters when it comes to children’s health,” said Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training. “These new programs will bring NIH resources to further study these connections, so we can develop priorities for interventions that improve children’s health.”
ECHO builds on existing children’s health studies
ECHO is a large, coordinated effort to bring more than 35 long-term studies of children’s health, or cohorts, together in a single consortium. The consortium will research how environmental factors contribute to four childhood health outcomes that have a substantial public health impact — obesity, respiratory illness such as asthma, brain and nervous system development, and health around the time of birth.
ECHO will enroll more than 50,000 children from diverse racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds who are exposed to a wide range of environmental conditions. Factors such as chemical pollutants, stress, and health-related behaviors like diet and sleep will be measured. There will be a special focus on environmental exposures during sensitive developmental windows, such as conception, during pregnancy, infancy, and early childhood.
“But ECHO is bigger than the cohorts,” notes Collman (see graphic below). It will also bring state-of-the-art clinical trials to medically underserved and rural populations, via an expansion of the Institutional Development Awards States Pediatric Clinical Trials Network. Participant perspectives will also be measured with the help of the Patient Reported Outcomes Core. Finally, the CHEAR Core will conduct a common set of laboratory tests on all ECHO samples using the CHEAR laboratory network.
“There are funds within the ECHO budget to support laboratory analysis by CHEAR, so it is not going to dilute what CHEAR is doing for the rest of the children’s health community,” explained David Balshaw, Ph.D., chief of the NIEHS Exposure, Response, and Technology branch. Balshaw co-directs CHEAR with Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., chief of the NIEHS Population Health Branch.
CHEAR provides lab tests and statistical consultation
The main purpose of CHEAR is to help NIH-funded researchers add measures of environmental conditions to children’s health studies by providing free laboratory testing, statistical consultation, and assistance with statistical analysis. CHEAR is a grant-funded resource that includes a laboratory network, data center, and coordinating center.
“Anyone who is funded by NIH to do research on children’s health can apply to use CHEAR, but there is a priority within CHEAR for those studies not already looking at environmental exposures,” explained Balshaw.
In some cases, chemicals can be measured in body fluids like blood or urine based on a hypothesis that they may be related to a health effect. These targeted analyses could include measures of brominated flame retardants, pesticides, phthalates, and many other substances.
Untargeted analyses are also possible, in which hundreds to thousands of chemicals can be measured in body fluids and compared with various measures of a child’s health, without a specific expectation, or hypothesis, for the results guiding the research. Researchers hope to use untargeted analyses to study how the exposome, a term for the sum of all environmental exposures to which people are exposed, affects health.
Researchers who would like to be included in the first round of application review should submit a request for CHEAR services by Oct. 14. Additional requests will be reviewed on a rolling basis.
(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)