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OU Researchers Receive $1.6 Million Grant

Wednesday, September 21, 2016 - Campus News -

The Department of Pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine has been awarded a four-year, $1.6 million federal research grant to study an important question: What factors are contributing to poor health in so many of Oklahoma’s children and adolescents?

The grant is awarded by the National Institutes of Health to launch an initiative called ECHO – Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes. 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. 

Experiences during sensitive developmental windows, including around the time of conception, later in pregnancy, and during infancy and early childhood, can have long-lasting effects on the health of children. These experiences encompass a broad range of exposures, from air pollution and chemicals in neighborhoods, to societal factors such as stress, to individual behaviors that include sleep and diet. They may act through any number of biological processes, including changes in the expression of genes or development of the immune system.

“The purpose of this program is ultimately to improve the health of Oklahoma’s children. It’s a very exciting opportunity,” said Paul Darden, M.D., professor in the OU College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics and principal investigator for the ECHO grant.

The ECHO study will focus on four primary areas of child health: upper and lower airway disease; obesity; pre-, peri- and postnatal outcomes; and brain and nervous system development. These areas represent substantial health concerns for Oklahoma, Darden said, and OU researchers have significant clinical and research expertise in each area.

The ECHO grant allows the research team to build the infrastructure for clinical trials and lays the foundation for attracting more federal grant money as the trials grow, Darden said. The project also contains an educational component that will train young investigators to conduct clinical trials.

The ECHO program will include collaborative efforts among health professionals at the OU Health Sciences Center as well as across the state. As principal investigator, Darden leads a research team that includes physicians, scientists, nurses and other health care professionals from the OU colleges of Medicine, Public Health and Nursing. Another collaborator is the Oklahoma Clinical and Translational Science Institute, part of the Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) program, also funded by the NIH. Because Oklahoma is a rural state with medically underserved areas, it receives IDeA funding to address those needs.

Other collaborators include groups representing the American Indian, Latino/Hispanic and African-American communities as well as county-based health improvement organizations around Oklahoma. Physicians and other health care providers in both urban and rural communities will be engaged to broaden the opportunities for Oklahoma children to participate in the ECHO program.

Collectively, their efforts will create the Oklahoma Pediatric Clinical Trials Network, which has a single goal: to provide access for underserved and rural populations of children in Oklahoma to state-of-the-art clinical trials and assure that those findings will benefit the health of Oklahoma’s children.

“Every baby should have the best opportunity to remain healthy and thrive throughout childhood,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “ECHO will help us better understand the factors that contribute to optimal health in children.”

For the OU Health Sciences Center, the ECHO program is an opportunity to leverage research and clinical trials to discover specific reasons why Oklahoma children have such poor health statistics. Research paves the way to better health care, and an academic health center is especially poised for such discovery.

“We are pleased that the NIH has funded this important research to discover ways to improve the health of our children,” said OU Health Sciences Center Vice President for Research James J. Tomasek, Ph.D. “Research investigations provide a foundation of evidence that informs our health care interventions and treatments.”

The ECHO study also highlights the importance of research conducted by a team of professionals representing various disciplines. The OU Health Sciences Center, with its seven colleges on the same campus, provides a multitude of opportunities for interprofessional investigations.

“Collaborations among our health care professionals provide extensive insight into the factors affecting our children’s health,” said OU Health Sciences Center Senior Vice President and Provost Jason R. Sanders, M.D., MBA. “Working together, we can discover how to best help our children experience good health today and throughout their lives.”

Research reported in this publication was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number UG1HD090900. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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