The University of Central Florida is partnering with local and state organizations to participate in a first of its kind national study to examine the role environment and genetics play in the health of children. The National Institutes of Health announced Friday (Oct. 3) that it has granted Florida a $54 million contract to participate in the National Children’s Study, an ambitious effort to follow 100,000 children across the country from conception through age 21.

The Orange County area’s portion of the contract, which includes UCF, is about $15 million.

The study’s goal is to examine the environmental and genetic factors that contribute to a host of diseases in children — including asthma, diabetes, autism and obesity — which local doctors, like those across the nation, are seeing in epidemic proportions. The study also will investigate factors influencing the development of such conditions as cerebral palsy, learning disabilities and birth defects.

Experts expect patterns will emerge that can help physicians and scientists answer questions and potentially develop strategies for prevention, better treatment options and someday cures for these diseases.

Professor and Associate Dean Thomas Wan, the lead investigator for the UCF portion of the project, called the research grant very important.

“This project holds much promise to really help us understand and focus on improving the health of our children,” said Wan, who is based in the College of Health and Public Affairs. “It exemplifies the growing interest in preventing unhealthy pregnancies and children’s health problems that are attributable to a variety of environmental exposures.”

Wan and College of Medicine Professor and Assistant Dean Lynn Crespo will work together on the project. They will work closely with the Orange County Public Health Department, a host of local pediatrician offices and all local hospitals where women deliver babies to enroll families in the area.

Wan and Crespo said that the data collected, even in the early years, would likely provide clues that they will be able to follow with further studies out of the University of Central Florida.

“Many studies look at single factors,” Crespo said. “This national database of information will offer some insight into trends, patterns and multi-factor causes and provide guidance for spin off research that may lead us to some answers. It will expand our knowledge base immensely and that’s good news for parents of children who are facing some of these diseases as well as for those whose children may be at risk for developing them.”

Local residents will be hired with the contract money to go door to door and ask families to participate in the study. The families selected will be based on a variety of factors so that the sample is appropriate for the study and representative.

Florida’s team, a statewide coalition, is one of 36 new or existing study centers announced Friday in the second wave of contracts granted by the NIH. When the study is completely underway, about 105 locations nationwide will be part of the project.

Kathleen O’Rourke is Director of Research at the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies and professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida. She and her team will oversee the efforts in Orange and Hillsborough counties while UF will oversee work in Baker County. The University of Miami Medical School will serve as the study center hub and report findings to the National Institutes of Health. Researchers estimate women will start enrolling in the study in about two years.

Authorized by Congress in the Children’s Health Act of 2000, the National Children’s Study is being conducted by a consortium of federal agencies. This includes two NIH institutes, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.