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UTHealth neonatal researcher funded by NIH to study plastic products used in NICUs

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The impact of the chemicals in the plastic products used in pediatric intensive care units will be the focus of a new $1 million study led by Andrea Duncan, M.D., M.S.ClinRes, associate professor at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and an attending physician with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.

The grant is part of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) seven-year initiative called Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes, which will look at a broad range of exposures that can impact children’s health.

Duncan will be the Houston principal investigator studying how exposure to chemicals such as phthalates, which are used in plastic products such as intravenous tubes and catheters, can affect children as they grow.

“It’s thought that phthalates might leach into the liquid solutions carried in tubing and other plastic products. Preclinical studies have shown that phthalates can cause problems in the reproductive system,” said Duncan, medical director of the Neonatal High-Risk Clinic and the Tiny Tot Clinic for Neurodevelopmental and Behavioral Health at UT Physicians, the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School.

Duncan’s research team will use existing samples of infants’ urine that have been collected for other studies, locate those children and assess their development. The study will be looking at children who are now ages 3 to 10.

Each year, more than 300,000 preterm infants in the United States are admitted to neonatal intensive care units (NICU), according to Judy Aschner, M.D., of Albert Einstein College of Medicine/The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, lead investigator of the national study, which is funded by a total grant of $5.3 million from the NIH.

“The outstanding care provided in NICUs throughout the country allows many critically ill babies to grow, thrive and go home with their families, however it is crucial that we gain a better understanding of the long-term impact of exposure to various environmental factors, to help ensure children have the best health possible throughout the rest of their lives,” Aschner said in a news release from The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore.

The study will enroll approximately 1,000 infants born prematurely who had been admitted to a NICU at 15 sites across the country.

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