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Thursday, October 4, 2007

UMass participating in long-term study of child health

By Scott Allen, Globe Staff

The babies will be studied from the time they are in their mothers' wombs through their 21st birthdays in hopes of discovering the earliest signs of diseases that disable and kill Americans by the million. The air they breath, the grass they play on, the water they drink -- all of it will be carefully measured for signs of contamination, and their family histories and genetic composition mined for the smallest defects.

The National Children's Study, the most ambitious study of children's health ever undertaken, took a big step toward reality today with the naming of 22 centers, including the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, that will carry out the decades of meticulous research.

Under an initial $16.24 million, five-year federal grant, the state medical school will recruit 1,000 Worcester County women willing to let their children's growth and development be tracked as part of the 100,000-child national study that aims to do for children's health what the famous Framingham Heart Study did for the understanding of heart disease.

"This is transformational ... We are talking about 30 years of studies," said Dr. Marianne Felice, chair of pediatrics at UMass, who spearheaded efforts to win the right to run the central Massachusetts branch of the study. "This is like the Framingham Heart Study for children, but better, longer and in more detail."

In the planning stages since 2000, the National Children's Study is intended to improve both prevention and treatment of major conditions such as birth defects, autism, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

Children's study officials had previously named seven institutions nationally to lead the project, but it nearly stalled at the starting gates in 2006 when the Bush administration tried to eliminate its funding. Congress ultimately put up $69 million for this year that allowed the study to name 22 more academic centers, including Yale and Brown universities in New England, to carry out the work. Ultimately, study officials expect a total of 30 to 40 centers will carry out the research in 105 locations around the United States.

Already, Felice said UMass is gearing up to hire many of the 100 or more employees they will need to recruit families and then track the children. UMass officials also are poring over a three-inch-thick briefing book that spells out the study procedures right down to details such as collecting a sample of infants' cord blood in the delivery room for analysis. Felice said the study will be a major boost for pediatrics research at the university, giving local researchers a platform to investigate both national and local concerns, such as the unusually high infant mortality rate in Worcester County.

"I consider this a legacy that I will leave to my young faculty," she said.

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