TAMPA — Some 1,000 future Hillsborough County residents — babies who aren't even born yet — will be studied from the womb until age 21 as part of a sweeping national study to learn more about the causes of diseases such as diabetes and autism.
The University of South Florida will receive $28.8-million to study 1,000 children in Hillsborough and 1,000 children in Orange County, who will be among 100,000 children nationwide. The University of Miami will lead Florida's research effort, including the study of 1,600 more children in Baker and Miami-Dade counties.
"This is the largest study of child health in the history of the U.S. government," said Dr. Steven Lipshultz, dean of child health at Miami's Miller School of Medicine. "It really is going to be the platform for all the federal government work in child health for probably the next 25 years."
Lipshultz is the principal investigator of Florida's National Children's Study Center. Over the next five years, Miami will receive $54-million from the National Institutes of Health for the study. Miami is contracting with USF to do its research, and the $28.8-million comes from its funds.
If Congress continues to fund the research until the children are 21, as researchers plan, the study will cost $3.2-billion. Florida's part of that would be $300- to $400-million, Lipshultz said.
While the study is pricey, investigators expect a big payoff. Five of the conditions being studied — injury, obesity, asthma, diabetes and neuro-behavioral disorders — cost the United States more than $750-billion a year, said Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
If research findings could lower that bill by even 1 percent, that would be a $7.5-billion savings, he pointed out.
The study's scope is comparable to some of the largest in the nation's history, such as the Framingham Heart Study or the Nurses' Health Study, investigators said.
"Almost everything we know about heart disease in adults has in some way been linked to that Framingham study," Lipshultz said.
Investigators want to know as much as they can about these children. They will collect sonograms before they are born and blood work after they arrive. They'll sample the air they breathe, learn about the food they eat and the illnesses they get.
They hope all that data will shed light on the genetic and environmental causes of a broad range of health issues. Some results won't be known for decades. But investigators hope to answer some questions in a few years.
"We believe the National Children's Study will be the largest study of pregnant women ever conducted," said Dr. Peter Scheidt, the study's national director. "We need to learn more about preterm birth. Every year nearly 500,000 babies are born prematurely."
Another early question will be why black babies are more likely to die in the first year of life than white ones, said Dr. Kathleen O'Rourke, the USF epidemiology professor who will be co-leader of the USF work.
To find the children, USF researchers will start by going door to door, signing up women who aren't even pregnant. Because many pregnancies are unplanned, they'll even sign up women who don't intend to have children soon.
Such studies often enroll patients through their doctors, but researchers want a group that truly represents society.
"The advantage is you get people who don't go to the doctor early in pregnancy," O'Rourke said. "We want to include people who usually don't go to the doctor at all."
Hillsborough and 104 other counties across the country were chosen because their populations form a good mirror of the national population, investigators said.
In Florida, researchers expect to start recruiting participants in 2010. People taking part will have occasional visits by researchers for years. They'll be compensated for travel and expenses, but it will mean a commitment. Still, O'Rourke thinks women will be willing to take part in a study that they know could contribute to making America's children healthier.
"This would give them a chance to improve the health of their own children, and the children across the country," she said.
Lisa Greene can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322.