Kaiser Permanente has received a major new grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how exposures to environmental chemicals during pregnancy may influence the risk of obesity and neurodevelopmental disorders in children.

Twenty percent of U.S. children are now considered obese and 15 percent have developmental impairments in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This research will explore how in utero exposure to chemicals in the environment affects normal growth and development by affecting the metabolism of glucose and thyroid hormones, both of which regulate infant growth and neurodevelopment,” said Assiamira Ferrara, MD, PhD, principal investigator of the new study and associate director of women’s and children’s health at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research.

On Sept. 21, NIH announced $157 million in grants for the Environmental Influences on Childhood Health Outcomes (ECHO) research program, which will utilize existing research study cohort populations around the nation to investigate how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development — from conception through early childhood —influences the health of children and adolescents.

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

The new Kaiser Permanente study will launch with $3.25 million in NIH funding over the first two years of the proposed 7-year study, with an estimated total cost of $24 million.

Kaiser Permanente investigators will focus on in utero exposures to endocrine-disrupting chemicals — including perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs), polybrominated ethers (PBDEs), and organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs) — which are found in many common household and personal products, plastics, and furniture.

“Several of these types of chemicals are persistent in the environment, and can be measured in human tissue such as blood and urine,” said Lisa A. Croen, PhD, co-principal investigator and director of Kaiser Permanente’s Autism Research Program.

Researchers will ask women who participated in two existing Kaiser Permanente pregnancy cohorts — the Pregnancy and Environment Lifestyle Study (PETALS, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and led by Ferrara) and the Kaiser Permanente Research Bank Pregnancy Cohort (KPRB-PC, led by Croen) — to join the new study, along with their young children.

“The new study would not have been possible without years of previous ground work at the Division of Research, as well as the support of clinicians throughout Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California region,” said Tracy A. Lieu, MD, MPH, director of the Division of Research.

The PETALS and KPRB-PC studies have already collected blood and urine samples from women during pregnancy, which will be used to measure endocrine-disrupting chemicals; their children will be evaluated at age 4 with detailed examinations and collection of saliva samples for genetic analysis.

“We will use state-of-the-art measurement and assessment tools to collect data on body fat distribution, health behaviors and a variety of developmental domains in the children,” Croen said. “We will also explore the potential mechanistic roles of changes in DNA on the associations of in utero exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals with child obesity and neurodevelopment.”

Ferrara noted that this research could lead to policy changes to protect children from environmental exposures in the future. “Since the use of environmental chemicals is potentially modifiable, results from the study may help to inform national environmental and public health agencies regarding policies to further regulate the production of these chemicals and inform the public regarding the restriction of their use,” Ferrara said.

Co-investigators of the study include Stacey Alexeeff, PhDLyndsay Ammon Avalos, PhD, MPHMonique M. Hedderson, PhD, Lawrence H. Kushi, ScD, and Charles P. Quesenberry, PhD, of the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research.

The Division of Research published this press release on October 6, 2016.