Every day in Utah, an average of three babies are born with a birth defect. In fact, the state has the highest rate of oral-facial clefts in the nation.
A recently awarded $5 million in federal funding will help the University of Utah and the state's public health department determine why.
The grant from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will provide Utah's research team with approximately $1 million annually for the next five years. The state was first funded for birth defects research in 2002.
"Since then, we've uncovered a critical link between abdominal wall birth defects and first trimester infections in the mother," said Marcia Feldkamp, director of the public health department's birth defects network and assistant professor of pediatrics at the U of U School of Medicine. "The funds will allow us to continue to increase our study population by at least 400 mothers and children, with and without birth defects, each year," she said.
Feldkamp will be the primary investigator on the grant.
Dr. Lorenzo Botto, assistant professor of pediatric genetics, will be a co-investigator whose research interest is in congenital heart defects.
"In Utah, more than a thousand babies are born each year with a birth defect," pointed out Botto. "That's simply too many and we have to know why they happen before we can find ways to prevent them."
The researchers are trying to uncover how genetics and the environment work jointly to produce birth defects.
For example, smoking is a known risk factor.
But Feldkamp wants to know why the babies of some mothers who smoke are born with problems while other infants are not.
The federal grant will allow the researchers to expand Utah's epidemiological and genetic databases and extend current studies on environmental and genetic factors that influence birth defects.
The researchers will use Utah's birth defect network - the state's population based surveillance program - to locate at least 300 babies with birth defects and 100 infants without birth defects during each of the next five years.
The researchers will also collect DNA samples from babies and parents to evaluate at genetic susceptibility and interview the mothers to study certain environmental exposures.
Birth defects are the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States , affecting an estimated 150,000 babies annually and contributing substantially to pediatric morbidity and the cost of health care.
In 1996, the U.S. Congress established a network of nine CDC centers for birth defects research and prevention.
The five remaining centers comprise partnerships between state public health agencies and universities. The joint centers specialize in different areas of research.
The Utah center, established in 2002, specializes in birth defects related to maternal infections.
The Utah center focuses particularly on maternal infections in relation to congenital heart problems in infants and gastroschisis, a defect in which a baby's intestines develop outside the body.
Last June, Feldkamp published a study in the British Medical Journal showing that women who have a sexually transmitted disease and urinary tract infection just before or during early pregnancy were four times more likely to have babies with gastroschisis.