By Abram Katz
Register Science Editor
Yale University has received about $26 million to help study the genetic and environmental underpinnings of autism, asthma, learning, and other diseases in one of the largest public health studies undertaken in the United States.
The National Children’s Study will eventually follow a total of 100,000 children from birth to 21 years of age. The Yale school of public health is responsible for conducting the study in New Haven and Fairfield counties.
A total of 105 representative counties in urban and rural areas in the U.S. will be studied. Currently about 25 medical schools and other research institutions have been tapped to participate in the $3.2 billion study.
Yale is concentrating on diseases developed in utero and through childhood.
While the study will encompass 2 decades, research results will start to emerge after a year or two, said Michael B. Bracken, a principal investigator in the study, and professor of epidemiology at Yale.
Findings on diseases and disorders that appear in the first 12 or 24 months, for example, will not be withheld until the end of the study.
Bracken said the university will recruit 1,000 pregnant women in both New Haven and Litchfield counties.
Rather than select patients from doctor’s offices, which might introduce unintentional bias, researchers will go from door to door seeking pregnant women, he said.
Then scientists will see how, or whether, environmental risks such as air and water quality, diet, or chemical exposure interact with maternal genetics to cause learning disabilities, asthma, autism, obesity, heart disease, and other diseases.
The National Children’s Study’s broad view of environment includes biological, physical, social, and cultural factors.
Scientists already formulated around 30 hypotheses, including glucose metabolism and birth defects, prenatal infection and schizophrenia, dietary antioxidants and asthma, and the impact of media exposure on child health and development, to study.
"This key expansion of one of the most important epidemiological studies in the United States today to include mothers and children from Litchfield County is a testament not only to the importance of this landmark study, but the expertise of our faculty," said Paul Cleary, dean of the Yale School of Public Health.
Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human development, said researchers will examine "not only what children are eating and drinking, not what’s in the air they breathe, what’s in the dust in their homes, and their possible exposures to chemicals from materials used to construct their homes and schools."
The National Children’s Study was established by an act of Congress and is being administered by the National Institutes of Health. The U.S. Department of health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency are also collaborating on the study.
Yale received $15 million last year, and another $10.7 million last week to launch its research and continue studies for five years.
Following subjects for 21 years could be difficult, Bracken said, but participating medical schools and hospitals across the country could "pick up" New Haven and Litchfield county residents who move.
The study’s $200 million cost is a large sum, but its results could help produce treatments for diseases that cost the U.S. tens of billions of dollars a year to treat, Bracken said.
Other lead investigators at Yale are Kathleen Belanger, research scientist in epidemiology; Dr. Jessica Illuzi, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology; and Lisbet Lundsberg, associate research scientist in epidemiology.
"Prospective studies such as this are critical to our understanding of factors that improve and cause risk to our health," said Dr. Robert J. Alpern, dean of the Yale School of Medicine.
"I am delighted that Dr. Bracken has been funded to continue and extend his work on this cohort," Alpern said.