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NIH awards U. researchers $3 million to study infant health

The National Institute of Health (NIH) awarded University researchers $3 million to study the effects of environmental factors on infant and early childhood health.  – Photo by Kristina Paukshtite /

The National Institute of Health (NIH) has issued a grant of approximately $3 million to University researchers to investigate how environmental factors during pregnancy affect children's health outcomes, said Emily Barrett, a professor in and vice chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology.

Barrett, a lead researcher on the project, said the work is a part of the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program, which is recorded to be the largest federal study conducted on children's health in the U.S. The grant will support University researchers in expanding the study to include New Jersey participants.

Barrett said her experience with developmental diseases comes from her research experience as a graduate student on pre- and post-natal community health outcomes.

"As someone who has been working in this area for years, I jumped at the chance to establish an ECHO site in New Jersey. Luckily, I already had a great team of collaborators here at Rutgers, so we were quick to get started thinking about what a New Jersey site might look like and how we could advance ECHO science," Barrett said.

The ECHO program was originally conducted from 2016-2023 but did not include New Jersey, Barrett said. When ECHO announced plans to expand sites across the country, the research team wanted to use this opportunity to represent New Jersey in the study, she said.

The grant is expected to be used during a seven-year period, with the initial $3 million grant covering the first two years of the project before an additional five years of funding is provided to University researchers after completion of the work, Barrett said.

"Like most NIH-funded research, this came through a competitive process. We wrote the grant in 2022, it was reviewed by a panel of scientists in 2023, and NIH elected to fund the project in summer 2023," she said. "We spent several months preparing for the work and recruited our first participants in January 2024."

University researchers, like Barrett, will observe 500 pregnant women from two local hospitals and study their infants into their early years of development.

The data collection will include consistent contact with the families, tissue samples and surveys to analyze development and respiratory health as the children age, Barrett said.

The research team will examine different aspects of maternal and infant care, such as C-section procedures and formula feeding, to analyze how they can potentially increase the risk of allergies and asthma in young children, Barrett said.

She said the researchers will be able to utilize more than 50,000 participants in the ECHO program, allowing them to accurately test their hypotheses.

"We are building on many emerging Rutgers strengths, including the microbiome, perinatal health and population environmental health. We are looking forward to engaging Rutgers researchers and learners at all levels in this work," Barrett said.

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