U, State Health Researchers to Study Birth Defects with $5 million Grant

U, State Health Researchers to Study Birth Defects with $5 million Grant

Jan 23, 2009 9:45 AM

SALT LAKE CITY - Every day in Utah, an average of three babies are born with a birth defect. The state has the highest rate of oral-facial clefts in the nation.  A new, $5 million infusion of federal funds should help the University of Utah and Utah Department of Health (UDOH) find out why this happens.

The grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will give the team about $1 million a year for the next five years. The state was first funded for birth defects research in 2002. 

"Since then, we've uncovered a critical link between abdominal wall birth defects and first trimester infections in the mother," said Marcia Feldkamp, Ph.D., director of the UDOH Utah Birth Defects Network (UBDN) and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University's School of Medicine. "The funds will allow us to continue to increase our study population by at least 400 mothers and children each year, with and without birth defects, each year," she said.

Feldkamp is the primary investigator on the grant. Lorenzo D. Botto, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, is a co-investigator whose research interest is in congenital heart defects. "In Utah, more than a thousand babies are born each year with a birth defect," Botto said. "That's simply too many, and we have to know why they happen before we can find ways to prevent them."

The researchers are trying to uncover how genetics and the environment work together to produce birth defects.  For example, while smoking is a known risk factor, Feldkamp wants to know why the babies of some mothers who smoke are born with problems while others aren't.

The grant will help the researchers expand Utah's epidemiological and genetic birth defect databases and extend current studies on environmental and genetic factors that influence birth defects. They will use the Utah Birth Defect Network, the state's population-based surveillance program, to find at least 300 babies with birth defects and 100 without birth defects each of the next five years. They also will collect DNA from babies and parents to look at genetic susceptibility and interview the mothers to study certain environmental exposures. 

Birth defects are the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States, affecting an estimated 150,000 babies annually and contributing substantially to pediatric morbidity and the cost of health care. 

In 1996, Congress established a network of nine CDC Centers for Birth Defects Research and Prevention. The five remaining centers comprise partnerships between state health agencies and universities and specialize in different areas of research. The Utah center, established in 2002, specializes in birth defects related to maternal infections, particularly in relation to congenital heart problems and gastroschisis, a defect in which a baby's intestines develop outside the body.

Last June, Feldkamp published a study in the British Medical Journal that showed women who have both a sexually transmitted disease and urinary tract infection just before or during early pregnancy were four times more likely to have babies with gastroschisis.

For more information about the Utah Birth Defect Network visit www.health.utah.gov/birthdefect.

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Phil Sahm
Health Sciences Public Affairs
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Email: phil.sahm@hsc.utah.edu

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