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$1.9M NIH grant to fund research in children's health at UMMC

Published on Wednesday, September 21, 2016

By: Annie Oeth,

The University of Mississippi Medical Center is the recipient of a National Institutes of Health grant for more than $1.9 million that will be used to support research in how environmental factors from conception through early childhood influence the health of children and adolescents.  

The funds, from the NIH Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program, will be distributed over four years to create a research infrastructure at UMMC, opening the door to increasing pediatric clinical trials in Mississippi, particularly among traditionally underserved populations.

“This will help children's research in Mississippi step up to a new level,” said Dr. Robert Annett, professor of pediatrics and director for research and education at UMMC's Center for the Advancement of Youth. “This will ultimately help pediatric clinical research have a positive impact upon the health of children across the country.”

The grant to UMMC is part of $157 million awarded this year for the seven-year ECHO program, which focuses on the effects of exposure to certain environmental factors - including physical, chemical, biological, social, behavioral, natural and built environments - on child health and development. The studies will target four key pediatric outcomes that have a high public health impact: upper and lower airway health; obesity; pre-, peri- and post-natal outcomes; and neurodevelopment.

Annett and Dr. Rick Barr, Suzan B. Thames professor and chair of pediatrics at UMMC, are the principal investigators in the project, which brings together a team of pediatric clinical researchers to address those four focus areas. 

“Mississippi has many health care challenges, and they can all have a profound impact upon our children,” Barr said. “Through research, we seek to improve children's health from the womb to adulthood, meaning future generations will have the care they need to reach their greatest potential.”

Co-investigators include Annett in neurodevelopment; Dr. Norma Ojeda, associate professor of pediatrics; Dr. Mark Majure, professor of pediatric pulmonology; and Dr. Whitney Herring, an assistant professor of pediatrics specializing in childhood obesity.

Advisory committees for the effort include, within UMMC, Dr. Richard Summers, associate vice chancellor for research; Dr. Bettina Beech, dean of the John D. Bower School of Population Health; Dr. Michael Griswold, director of the Center of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics; Dr. Dan Jones, director of clinical and population sciences for the Mississippi Center for Obesity Research; Dr. Joshua Mann, Preventative Medicine chair; Dr. Gailen Marshall, Allergy and Immunology chair; Jane Reckelhoff, Women's Health Research Center director; and Dr. James Shwayder, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

External advisors include Dr. Mary Currier, Mississippi State Health officer; David Dzielak, Mississippi Division of Medicaid executive director; Theresa Hanna, Center for Mississippi Health Policy CEO; Dr. Juantina Johnson, Choctaw Health Center chief medical officer; Dr. Joe Olmi, University of Southern Mississippi psychology chair; Linda Southward, Mississippi Health Policy Research Center research scientist; and Dr. David Kimberlin, chair of pediatric diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“We are bringing together the best minds and are embracing experts from around the state,” said Annett, noting that UMMC will also be collaborating with other institutions to share data and findings.

ECHO will also create a pediatric clinical trials network, leveraging existing infrastructure to address gaps in access to health care for rural children. Children's of Mississippi pediatric clinics around the state would be a part of that system, helping connect clinical trials with children and families, Annett said. Children's of Mississippi is an umbrella organization that includes Batson Children's Hospital and all UMMC pediatric care.

The program seeks to promote best practices for children's health. “Every baby should have the best opportunity to remain healthy and thrive throughout childhood,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins in an announcement this morning.  “ECHO will help us better understand the factors that contribute to optimal health in children.”


Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine sees pediatric research as central to the mission of UMMC. “What could be more important than researching how children can lead healthier lives? Studies that can be life-changing are at the heart of our purpose, and we thank the National Institutes of Health for supporting the work of our researchers.”

Summers sees the role of pediatric clinical research as central to a healthier population. “The National Institutes of Health ECHO grant will help us gain insights through research that will ultimately allow children and families everywhere to live healthier lives. Through this funding, we will create the collaborative network needed for Mississippi to progress in pediatric clinical research.”