WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Institutes of Health is launching a new project to help unravel how early-in-life environmental exposures may affect autism, obesity and certain other childhood disorders. It’s a second shot at tackling those important questions, after a more ambitious research attempt failed.
The goal is “really to understand that interplay between the environment and genetics and behavior that play out to determine whether a child ends up healthy or not,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH’s director.
Called ECHO, for Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes, the seven-year project will examine such interactions in pregnancy and early childhood, focusing on four areas of special public health concern: asthma and other airway disorders; obesity; neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and learning disability; and birth defects and other infant health outcomes.
The project announced Monday is a next step after the failure of a massive earlier attempt to study how the environment and genetics interact in child health. The National Children’s Study was supposed to eventually track 100,000 children from womb to adulthood. A year ago, Collins canceled that research, after years of planning and pilot-testing only to have scientific advisers conclude it was too unwieldy to work.
The ECHO project takes a different, and more streamlined, approach. Rather than starting from scratch to recruit participants, researchers with child health studies already under way can apply to expand them, using new technologies to measure even small environmental exposures that would be analyzed at NIH-designated labs. For example, an asthma study might use wearable monitors to uncover what triggers a child’s asthma attacks, or compare air pollution sensors with inhaler use.
NIH said it plans to spend $160 million on ECHO research this year.