Cache County was named one of 22 new study locations for the National Children's Study Thursday. Utah State University will conduct the study on the county's behalf, in cooperation with the University of Utah.
It's an unusual study in that participants have not yet been born, and some of the founding researchers likely will die before the study is complete. The plan is to enrll women of childbearing age in specific target neighborhoods, then follow subsequent pregnancies through birth and into adulthood. It's not unlikely, officials said, that the subjects could be followed their whole lives, with a passing of the baton from one generation of researchers to the next.
Officially, the study will follow subjects until they are 21, but Sean Firth, Utah project director, said, "It would be a huge mistake once we identify a cohort of this size to disband and let it go away. I would hope we'd continue to follow them until they're dead."
Two years ago, Salt Lake County was named one of seven initial Vanguard Centers nationally. The U. Department of Pediatrics, supported by Primary Children's Medical Center and government and health-care agencies, was awarded a $16 million contract. Dr. Edward B. Clark, chairman of pediatrics at the U. School of Medicine, was named principal investigator, a title he also holds for the Cache County/USU center. Richard N. Roberts, Ph.D., professor of psychology at USU, is co-investigator in Cache County.
"This is the boldest, most comprehensive, most complete children's study ever launched," Clark said.
The National Children's Study will look at environmental and genetic factors that impact a child's development and health, even tackling issues of "nature vs. nurture."
Researchers expect to track 100,000 U.S. children and along the way learn about common diseases and conditions, including autism, diabetes, attention deficit disorders, obesity and birth defects, among others. The study will consider everything from environmental variables and a mother's nutrition to the effects of bad air quality, genetics and more. They plan to take samples from the child's environment, as well.
Utah is expected to enroll 2,250. There's even a plan to transfer families that move to another study site. "We've built in the ability to hand them off," Clark said. Families will be able to drop out at any time, without compromising the information that's already been gleaned.
Key to any study site's success is the ability to forge good relationships, Firth said. They're busy recruiting community advocates and spokespeople who can give them the proper introduction to various communities and help recruit. But people can't volunteer to be study subjects. To get the right demographics, select neighborhoods, even blocks, will be designated and the families living there contacted and recruited, Clark said.
Next summer, they'll launch a media campaign so people will be familiar with the study before investigators ever knock on doors something Salt Lake assessors will do in a year. USU will be ready in 2009. Next spring, a center is likely to be designated in the Bear Lake/Uintah region. The goal is 105 study sites nationwide; today's designations bring the total to more than 30.
Utah has considerable success with health-related studies because people are willing to help improve knowledge and research, said Roberts and Vonda Jump, senior research associate in USU's Early Intervention Research Institute at the Center for Persons with Disabilities, which Roberts directs. They expect to build on that with this study.
Some study findings may be available as early as three years after the study begins, Clark said. As they find answers, they'll share them.
Earlier this year, there was a question about whether the study would happen because of funding. It's now a line item in the federal budget, with $69 million allotted for 2007 to fund both the new centers and the existing vanguard centers.The National Children's Study is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
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