MUSC part of 7-year national research initiative with the NIH

a mother holding a baby

Researchers at MUSC are currently recruiting for a study looking at the effects of environmental exposures on hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, preterm birth and obesity

by Celia Spell

In a second-wave study by the NIH, MUSC will be one of 45 sites examining the effects of environmental exposures on children and their development over the next 7 years.

The first wave of the study collected data on the same topic, but the second wave will be more specific. It will follow individual mothers and their children as part of a cohort for the next 7 years and hopefully longer.

Each site in the study has a different focus, and researchers at MUSC will specifically be looking at obesity. Roger Newman, M.D., a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at MUSC and coleader of the study with Kelly J. Hunt, Ph.D., says they’re hoping to tackle some complex questions.

“We’re looking across the board at environmental exposures like chemicals in our participants’ neighborhoods, air pollution in their region and even their family dynamics,” he said. “We’re looking for the best opportunities to make a positive impact on child health.”

The ECHO study, or Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes, first began in 2016, and researchers hope the study will continue even after the next 7 years have passed. It aims to tackle what Hunt, who is a professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at MUSC, describes as Big Science. A research style developed during and after World War II, Big Science is a method of collecting large swaths of research across diverse populations using funding from the government or institutions.

Hunt says it’s particularly important that a state like South Carolina is part of this study because its population is so diverse. “South Carolina has historically been understudied,” she said. “I think the results of this research could have a huge impact on black and rural communities that are often not studied enough.”

This study is similar to the Human Genome Project, which was a 13-year international project aimed at cataloguing the complete human genetic code. The goal of the project was to help scientists identify genes involved in both rare and common diseases, but Newman hopes the ECHO study is even more impactful.

With a goal of recruiting 500 pregnant people over the next couple of years, Hunt and Newman describe enrolling as a commitment but not a taxing one. Participants will have two visits with researchers during their pregnancy, two visits in the first year of their baby’s life and then one visit each year for the remaining years of the study. The visits can be done in person or remotely. Participants can expect researchers to collect questionnaire data, physical measurements and biospecimens of both the mother and the child during their visits.

Newman says participants will be part of something significant. “They’re participating in science that’s going to change the future of medicine in this country,” he said. “It could change health policy surrounding environmental exposure, which is so important.”

To qualify, participants must be under 20 weeks pregnant and delivering their baby at MUSC, but there are no other criteria beyond that. To refer a patient or sign up individually, please email or call 854-253-6383.