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UI Steps Up to Find Cause of Birth Defects

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has selected the University of Iowa to receive one of six grant awards to identify modifiable maternal exposures in early pregnancy that may increase the risk of major birth defects. Each grant recipient will receive an estimated $3.5 million over the five-year project period.

Among the goals of the project are conducting comprehensive ascertainment of common, severe major birth defects, identifying associations with environmental exposures and genetic factors, and expanding a training program to develop the future generation of birth defect researchers.

Through these awards, known as the Birth Defects Study to Evaluate Pregnancy Exposures (BD-STEPS) awards, CDC will continue a long-standing collaboration with the UI and five other institutions—Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Massachusetts Department of Public Health, New York State Department of Health, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Stanford University—to build on previous birth defects research.

Paul Romitti, professor of epidemiology in the University of Iowa College of Public Health, is the principal investigator on the UI grant award and Kristin Caspers, associate research scientist in the UI College of Public Health is the co-principal investigator. Romitti also directs the Iowa Registry for Congenital and Inherited Disorder and the Iowa Center for Birth Defects Research and Prevention.

“Since 1983, the Iowa Registry for Congenital and Inherited Disorders has played a leadership role in surveillance of major birth defects, and since 1996, the Iowa center has played a leadership role in studying environmental and genetic factors for these conditions,” says Romitti.

“Our work continues to span all of Iowa’s 99 counties, and brings together collaborators from across the country to study major birth defects,” continues Romitti. “It’s a model that has proven to work.”

Romitti refers to this collaborative approach to Iowa’s research as a key component to Iowa’s successful pursuit of this competitive award. Collaborators at the UI include Trudy Burns from the College of Public Health, Jeffrey Murray, Thomas Scholz, and Oleg Shchelochkov from the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, and training programs in the UI Carver College of Medicine and the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The center will also draw on collaborations with the Iowa Department of Public Health, National Human Genome Research Institute, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, University of California-Davis, HealthPartners Institute for Education and Research, and the New York State Department of Health.

“The causes of most major birth defects are still unknown,” says Romitti. “And in the end, that’s what this research is all about, because learning the causes of birth defects will help us to develop interventions to prevent them.”