USF joins NIH's landmark National Children's Study

- USF will oversee the study sites in Hillsborough and Orange Counties -

Perinatal epidemiologists Wendy Nembhard, PhD, (left) and Kathleen O’Rourke, PhD, supported by faculty across the USF College of Public Health, worked behind the scenes for four years to ensure USF had a major role in the NIH’s historic Children’s Health Study.

Tampa, FL (Oct. 3, 2008) – The University of South Florida has been awarded $28.8 million to participate in the National Institute of Health’s comprehensive study on the interaction of genes and the environment on children’s health.

NIH officials today named 36 new and existing National Children’s Health study centers that will recruit study volunteers from a total of 72 locations across the United States. The University of Miami, Miller School Medicine was awarded $54 million as the Study Center hub for the National Children’s Study in Florida, a consortium of universities and their community partners across the state.

USF was awarded $28.8 million to oversee the NIH-sponsored research contract in Hillsborough and Orange counties – two of three Florida study sites coordinated by UM — for the first five years of the study.

The other Florida site participating in the National Children’s Study is Baker County; the University of Florida will oversee work there. If funded, Miami-Dade County would be the fourth and final study site in Florida and would start next year under the direct supervision of UM.

In collaboration with the UM Study Center, USF will recruit participants from Hillsborough and Orange counties, collecting genetic, biological and environmental samples, and compiling information for study analyses investigating how genetic and environmental factors influence childhood health and disease.

Study volunteers — women who are pregnant or likely to have a child in the near future — will be recruited from rural, urban, and suburban areas, from all income and educational levels, and from all racial groups.

The National Children’s Study will span more than 20 years. The study is expected to follow 100,000 children, from before birth to age 21, at more than 100 study locations nationwide. In Florida, researchers will follow 3,600 children — including 1,000 each in Hillsborough and Orange counties. They will begin enrolling study participants in about two years.

“This is a phenomenal opportunity to help shape child health policy and interventions for generations to come,” Kathleen O’Rourke, PhD, professor of epidemiology at the USF College of Public Health. “The results of this long-term study will be very powerful because it involves a nationally representative sample with large numbers of children. It will answer important questions about children’s health for children in Florida, the nation and the world.”

Dr. O’Rourke will lead the NCS study in Hillsborough County with co-leader Lewis Rubin, MD, professor and Muma Endowed Chair in Neonatology at the USF Department of Pediatrics, College of Medicine. She will lead the Orange County study with co-leader David Keefe, MD, professor and chair of USF Obstetrics and Gynecology. Wendy Nembhard, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at the USF College of Public Health, will also have a lead role in both counties and will assist in oversight of the research projects and administrative activities.

“The fact that USF is playing a critical role in this landmark study is a credit to how far we’ve advanced as a research university and recognition of our expertise and strong community outreach initiatives in maternal and child health,” Dr. Nembhard said. “We spent a tremendous amount of time and energy working on this project, securing USF’s role in this historic study. If we can improve the life of just one child or help improve the quality of life for one family with children it will be worth all of our hard work and sacrifice.”

USF will work with many community organizations, such as the Hillsborough and Orange County Health Departments, Healthy Start, Florida Birth Defects Registry and Children’s Medical Services, to ensure diverse constituencies have a voice in the study.

In Orange County, USF will also partner with the University of Central Florida to recruit study participants and collect data. The University of Florida will provide expertise in environmental exposure and management of laboratory specimens. The Battelle Memorial Institute will assist with screening and enrolling study participants in all counties.

The study will investigate physical, genetic, biological, chemical, psychosocial, geographic and other environmental factors influencing the development of such conditions as autism, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, birth defects, diabetes, asthma, and obesity.

Throughout its 25-year span, the study is expected to shed light on factors that impact health and development before birth and as infants grow into young adults.

Researchers will address such questions as:
• Can very early exposure to some allergens actually help children remain asthma-free?
• Do household pesticides have adverse effects on brain development?
• How do neighborhood factors contribute to the risk of injury?
• How do genes and the environment interact to promote or prevent violent behavior in teenagers?

“The National Children’s Study will be to child and maternal health what the Framingham Heart Study has been to cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Rubin, a neonatologist. “Over the last several decades the Framingham Study has revolutionized our understanding of the risks, causes and preventive strategies for heart disease.

“The National Children’s Study will provide a similarly rich database for testing hypotheses about what is beneficial and what is damaging to children’s growth and development,” Dr. Rubin said. “For the pediatrics community, it has enormous potential for clarifying the causes of childhood diseases – both before and after birth – which may ultimately lead to new preventions, treatments and cures.”

Within just a few years, the study will provide information on disorders of pregnancy and birth. Since women would be recruited before they give birth, and in some instances even before they become pregnant, the study will offer insight into the causes and contributors of preterm birth. More than 500,000 premature infants are born each year in the United States. Infants born prematurely are at risk for early death and a variety of health problems, such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and learning disabilities. Health care costs for preterm infants total $26 billion a year.

Other USF College of Public Health and Chiles Center faculty involved in the Hillsborough and/or Orange County projects include Dr. Julie Baldwin, Dee Jeffers (community engagement activities), Dr. Hamisu Salihu (secondary data analysis), and Dr. Linda Detman (study coordinator). Other College of Medicine faculty participating in the projects include Dr. Rubin Quintero, Dr. Douglas Holt, Dr. Karen Bruder and Dr. Jennifer Takagishi. The population-based study will rely heavily on community partnerships, and USF will work closely with the Hillsborough County Health Department, directed by Dr. Holt, and the Orange County Health Department, directed by Dr. Kevin Sherrin.

“I am so appreciative of everyone coming together in such a tremendous effort not only to assure that we could be a part of this landmark study but to make certain that the issues specific to Florida families would be represented in this national study,” said Donna Petersen, ScD, dean of the USF College of Public Health.

Authorized by Congress in the Children’s Health Act of 2000, the National Children’s Study is being conducted by a consortium of federal agencies. This includes two NIH institutes, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

More information about the National Children’s Study is available from

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