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As part of a major nationwide study, a Hackensack Meridian Health physician-scientist has earned a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to research how environmental factors affect children with a variety of disabilities.  

The two-year, $5.6 million grant to Judy Aschner, M.D. and team is part of the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program, a massive national cohort started seven years ago.  

The new funding will continue the long-term ECHO research of Dr. Aschner, the Marvin I. Gottlieb MD, PhD Chair of Pediatrics at Hackensack University Medical Center (HUMC) Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, as well as the physician-in-chief for Hackensack Meridian Children’s Health. 

The grant, entitled “Enriching ECHO Cohorts with High-risk Pregnancies and Children with Disabilities (Enriching ECHO)” will advance disability inclusivity in ECHO research by studying children with a spectrum of disabilities, and by leveraging existing data from ECHO participants with disabilities. 

The scientific premise of Aschner and her team is that psychosocial environmental exposures (such as social determinants of health, stress, social environment, and discrimination) and modifiable personal factors (including parenting style, social supports, and mental health) impact the physical and emotional health of children with disabilities. Aschner and team believe the observations will result in definable outcomes of function, well-being, and participation in community and family life.  

“Our hypothesis is that we can identify specific environmental factors associated with better-than-expected positive health outcomes along the continuum of disability to typical development,” Aschner said. 

Beginning in January 2024, pregnant women will be recruited before the 20th week of gestation from the high-risk obstetric practice at Hackensack University Medical Center and Prentice Women’s Hospital at Northwestern University with seven years of follow up of the women and their children at the Joseph M Sanzari Children’s Hospital at HUMC and Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. 

Depending on the results of the first two years, the grant could bring further funding for five more years, with a potential total of $32 million over seven years.  

The national ECHO program focuses on five key pediatric outcomes with a high public health impact: pre-, peri-, and post-natal outcomes; upper and lower airway health; obesity; neurodevelopment; and positive health.  

 ECHO’s first phase was funded from September 2016 to August 2023 and included over 69 cohorts in 31 NIH awards with over 41,000 participants. Aschner has been a principal investigator with a cohort of the ECHO study since 2016.  

 She was the principal investigator for the ECHO-DINE (Developmental Impact of NICU Exposures) award in ECHO cycle 1 consisting of four preterm cohorts originally recruited when in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at eight hospitals in the U.S. This cohort will continue to be followed for another seven years in ECHO Cycle 2. 

Understanding the effects of environmental exposures on child health and development is a major objective of ECHO. The study capitalizes on existing participant populations and supports approaches that can evolve with the science and take advantage of the growing number of diverse participants, enhanced stakeholder engagement and technological advances. 

“This is a major national study with incredible longitudinal importance,” said Ihor Sawczuk, M.D., FACS, president of Academics, Research, and Innovation at Hackensack Meridian Health, founding chair of the Hackensack Meridian Health Research Institute, and associate dean of Clinical Integration and professor and chair emeritus of Urology at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. “The work of Dr. Judy Aschner is a credit to both that national study, and to our organization.” 

ABOUT HACKENSACK MERIDIAN HEALTH 

Hackensack Meridian Health is a leading not-for-profit health care organization that is the largest, most comprehensive and truly integrated health care network in New Jersey.  The network has 18 hospitals and more than 500 patient care locations. With more than 35,000 team members and 7,000 physicians, Hackensack Meridian Health is a distinguished leader in healthcare philanthropy.