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Hopkins school of public health gets $95 million to study environmental effects on children's health

Johns Hopkins will use data to answer questions about what influences children's health.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health will receive $95 million in federal funding over seven years to analyze data collected from 50,000 children across the country and answer questions about environmental factors that influence their health from conception through early childhood.

The grant from the National Institutes of Health was announced Wednesday.

The children have already been enrolled in one study or another across the country, and the NIH recognized an opportunity to use existing systems to pool information for wider and better analysis, said Lisa Jacobson, a professor of epidemiology at the Bloomberg School who will lead the Hopkins data center.

Researchers at Hopkins hope to begin providing information within a year on why some children are born with or develop obesity, asthma and allergies, autism, birth defects and other problems.

"The potential is enormous," Jacobson said of the new NIH program, called Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes, or ECHO. "We will help identify what are the critical elements that influence children's health outcomes. … My ultimate goal is to improve the likelihood that children are born healthy and live healthy lives."

Environmental factors, such as air pollution and chemicals, stress, sleep and diet could have an effect on health, Jacobson said. These factors will be evaluated along with other influences, such as the children's genetic makeup.

The massive pool of data will be analyzed looking for children exposed to common environmental factors with similar outcomes. Once the data begin providing answers to questions about health, Jacobson said, scientists can develop ways of preventing problems from developing or, at least, a means of monitoring for disease and early intervention.

She said the new program offers a much larger number of participants than many past studies. The findings will be both shared publicly and published in scientific journals, possibly beginning in a year's time.

The Hopkins researchers will share the NIH grant with the research firm RTI International, which will handle data management.

Hopkins and RTI will receive $5 million in the first year, which is part of $157 million in funding for the program in 2016, according to the NIH.

Duke University researchers will coordinate the groups of children and determine how to uniformly collect data. Dozens of hospitals and other research sites will enroll children in the new program.

"Every baby should have the best opportunity to remain healthy and thrive throughout childhood," Dr. Francis S. Collins, the NIH director, said in a statement. "ECHO will help us better understand the factors that contribute to optimal health in children."

The grant comes on the heels of a $300 million gift from businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the school of public health for creation of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative. It will focus on research areas including addiction and overdose, risks to adolescent health, environmental challenges, obesity and violence.

"This new grant from the National Institutes of Health dovetails perfectly with the work we are doing to develop innovative solutions to the health threats facing the United States in the 21st century," Dr. Michael J. Klag, dean of the Bloomberg School, said in a statement. "We are proud to be able to use our expertise in using data-driven approaches to analyzing large public health problems to help investigate how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development influences the health of children and adolescents."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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