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Yale Center For Perinatal, Pediatric, and Environmental Epidemiology Hunts Through History to Answer Tomorrow's Research Questions

Yale Public Health Magazine, Focus: Spring 2022
by Matt Kristoffersen


Hidden deep within freezers, in rows of inherited specimens from years past, lies what Andrew DeWan, Ph.D., M.P.H., considers to be a gold mine for the Yale Center for Perinatal, Pediatric and Environmental Epidemiology: biological samples from thousands of children, pregnant women and whole families over the past several decades.

The biggest obstacle? Organizing them— and, of course, analyzing their contents.

It’s hard work, said DeWan, the center’s director and an associate professor of epidemiology (Chronic Diseases) at the Yale School of Public Health. But with enough time and effort, he predicts the center’s vast collection of urine, blood and other specimens could turn out to be a treasure trove for answering some of the biggest questions in maternal and child health.

“They’ve been stored in freezers for 20 or more years. Let’s go back into these freezers and see if the samples are still viable,” he said. “And if they are, we can leverage the data with new techniques and generate new data from these biological samples.”

The work to assess this wellspring of data, DeWan said, will require more time, funding and energy to continue. But the possibilities are nonetheless promising.

When coupled with efforts to locate sample donors and their offspring, he explained, the multitude of existing biological specimens can fuel powerful longitudinal studies that look into a range of different areas, including potential risk factors for asthma and environmental exposures. And since the samples have been preserved for so long in freezers, they can give researchers a rare window into how these impacts could have ripple effects across generations.

These long-term studies not only offer a wealth of biological data, they also include extensive residential and environmental information collected from thousands of surveys and questionnaires. Colleagues at the center can now use newer models with powerful mapping software not available 20 years ago to analyze the data and estimate exposures to air pollution and other environmental factors.

DeWan began his tenure as the center’s director in 2019 after its two longtime co-directors—YSPH Susan Dwight Bliss Professors Michael B. Bracken and Brian Leaderer— retired. Founded in 1979, the center has fostered an innovative research environment for the Yale School of Public Health and epidemiologists around the world. It has had a long tradition of conducting population-based research, especially studies involving mothers and children and chronic health issues, such as asthma.

One of the things that we do as a center is provide a built-in collaborative network.

Andrew DeWan, Director, Yale Center for Perinatal, Pediatric and Environmental Epidemiology

“Each of us at the center have our own individually funded research programs,” DeWan stated. “But one of the things that we do as a center is provide a built-in collaborative network. Being a genetic epidemiologist, I have perinatal epidemiologists or environmental epidemiologists at my disposal to talk to when planning a study.”

In recent months, researchers at the center have published important findings on a range of scientific explorations. Newer research has focused on neuropsychiatric diseases potentially linked to environmental organic pollutants and man-made chemicals. Efforts to use and analyze large datasets rich with information on human health such as those found in the U.K. Biobank, Denmark, Norway and U.S. state registries, are also underway.

The variety of research areas in the center—including obesity, childhood cancers and exposure assessment—has proven particularly inspiring, DeWan said.

Several affiliated faculty have been conducting research into the potential risks associated with using acetaminophen-based pain relieving medications during pregnancy. After contributing to the growing body of evidence that suggests using the analgesic during pregnancy is linked to an increased risk for impaired cognitive function in children, YSPH Professor Zeyan Liew, Ph.D., M.P.H., and colleagues joined a consensus statement urging caution.

In a set of studies published last year, center researchers were part of a team that uncovered new monitoring strategies for preventing obesity in Samoan children.

Research in these and other areas remains ongoing, as does the massive organization effort for all those samples in the freezers. DeWan said he is confident that the center can keep providing novel insights for maternal and child health for years to come.

“We’re one of the oldest centers at the Yale School of Public Health. We really like to draw on that experience and the previous studies that we’ve done,” he said. “Now, we’re really trying to leverage the historical aspects of the center for the future."

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