US program to investigate impact of environmental factors on early development

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The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced $157 million in awards in fiscal year 2016 to launch a seven-year initiative called Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO).

The ECHO program will investigate how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development — from conception through early childhood — influences the health of children and adolescents.

Announcing the awards, NIH Director Francis S Collins, MD, PhD said:

Every baby should have the best opportunity to remain healthy and thrive throughout childhood. ECHO will help us better understand the factors that contribute to optimal health in children.

The NIH says the awards will build the infrastructure and capacity for the ECHO program to support multiple, synergistic longitudinal studies that extend and expand existing cohort studies of mothers and their children.

ECHO research will focus on factors that may influence health outcomes around the time of birth as well as into later childhood and adolescence, including upper and lower airway health and development, obesity, and brain and nervous system development.

A critical component of the program will be to use the NIH-funded Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) program to build state-of-the art paediatric clinical research networks in rural and medically underserved areas, so that children from these communities can participate in clinical trials.

I’m very excited to work with many of our nation’s best scientists to tackle vital unanswered questions about child health and development. I believe we have the right formula of cohorts, clinical trials and supporting resources, including a range of new tools and measures, to help figure out which factors may allow children to achieve the best health outcomes over their lifetimes.

Said ECHO Program Director Matthew W Gillman, MD.

ECHO will fund existing paediatric cohorts with a goal of enrolling more than 50,000 children from diverse racial, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds to become part of the ECHO consortium.

These cohort studies will analyse existing data as well as follow the children over time to address the early environmental origins of at least one of ECHO’s health outcome areas. Each cohort will participate with the others to combine data that are collected in a standardised way across the consortium.

The ECHO website says that while the goals of ECHO are consistent with those of the former National Children’s Study, the approach is different:

ECHO is designed to capitalize on existing participant populations, and support approaches that can evolve with the science and take advantage of the growing number of clinical research networks and technological advances.

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