N.C. Research Campus operation lands $5.3M NIH grant

March 21, 2013
Jennifer Thomas, Staff Writer- Charlotte Business Journal

The UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute has received a five-year, $5.3 million grant to study fetal-alcohol disorders in South Africa.

The funds from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism will support a handful of studies that will explore the effects of the disorder across a person’s lifespan, says Philip May, a nutrition research professor and primary investigator for the NIH grant.

The nutrition-research institute is part of the N.C. Research Campus, a 350-acre biotech hub in Kannapolis.

“We think we can improve lives dramatically,” May says. “There are just so many kids to work with there.”

Up to 20% of South Africa’s population is affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which are caused by drinking during pregnancy.

That can result in birth defects such as learning disabilities, neurological, behavioral and social deficits. For example, a child may experience poor coordination, speech and language delays, hyperactive behavior or poor memory.

May has been conducting research on the fetal-alcohol disorders in South Africa since 1997. This grant will allow that research to continue.

His latest work in South Africa will examine whether children diagnosed with fetal-alcohol spectrum disorders benefit from by receiving education stimulation or nutritional enhancement at an earlier age. May’s previous research focused on interventions for children between the age of 8 and 10.

This 18-month study will include 144 children that are 24 months old. The first round will start in September in two South African communities, with a second study possible.

The grant also will support two in-school screening studies to develop protocols for children up to age 7 suffering from fetal-alcohol spectrum disorders, and nutritional analysis of blood samples of pregnant women. A study to detect alcohol consumption during pregnancy is planned.

“There are a lot of very expensive, complex studies here,” May says. “Our money goes a long way over there.” Fifteen field staffers have been hired to administer behavioral testing, draw blood samples and other work related to the studies.

Work done in South Africa translates into possible solutions in the United States and elsewhere, May adds.

He also received an $8.9 million grant from the health institute in 2011 to study the prevalence and characteristics of fetal-alcohol disorders in the U.S. population.

Jennifer Thomas covers retail, health care and education for the Charlotte Business Journal.

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