Because of its size and longevity, the Child Health and Development Studies is helping researchers tease apart the complex series of events and exposures starting before birth that may lead to cancer and other diseases many decades later. A growing number of studies suggests that the hormones and chemicals a child is exposed to in the womb may play a big role in her development of a number of diseases.
The decades-old blood is what makes the research so exciting, said Julia Brody, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute, a non-profit breast cancer research organization based in Massachusetts.
“It’s so helpful to have both measurements collected years ago and the potential to follow people for a long time to see what happens,” said Brody, who is an advisor for the Three Generations Study.
In the 1950s, scientists were not thinking about the fetal origins of adult diseases. They were not archiving blood and urine from pregnant women and their newborns for future generations of researchers to study. That all changed with the forward-thinking scientists in Oakland.
In 1959, under the direction of Jacob Yerushalmy, a professor of biostatistics at the University of California, Berkeley, the first participants were enrolled through their health insurance provider, Kaiser Permanente. Over the years, many study families stuck with Kaiser. Having all study participants initially on a single health plan with its own clinics and hospitals helped researchers gather detailed information and samples from the families.
At doctor’s visits during childhood and adolescence, Ida Washington, who lives in San Leandro, Calif., remembers filling out questionnaires and having body measurements taken. “I never thought much about it,” she said. “The tests were just part of the routine.” It wasn’t until several years later, when she received that letter in the mail, that she realized what it was all for.
Ida works as a claims assistant for Kaiser Permanente in Oakland. She has a 30-year-old son she hopes will be asked to participate in a men’s follow-up study. Her mother, Willie Mae, who worked as a nursing aid in convalescent and private homes at the time, no longer remembers when she was approached about the study or why she joined. “I think shortly after Ida was born,” she said. “I had three older children. Ida was my baby.”
The blood that Ida’s mother and the others provided years ago was frozen and now resides at a storage facility in Reston, Va. Cohn, the study director, rations serum from the archived vials sparingly. When the vials are gone, so is the information – and potential – that they hold.
New blood and urine samples, provided by the second generation of women, now in their late 40s and early 50s, as well as their daughters, are processed and stored at a state-of-the-art biorepository on the University of California, Berkeley's new Bay campus.
Decades ago, blood was simply put in a vial and frozen. Now scientists have come up with more sophisticated methods of dividing and preserving samples to ensure that researchers can extract even more data, explained Nina Holland, a professor at the School of Public Health and director of the biorepository where the new vials are kept.
Holland’s biorepository catalogues and stores specimens from 32 completed and ongoing scientific studies, but few of them contain the depth of information as the Child Health and Development Studies.
“The fact that you can go back 50 years is remarkable. This is probably one of the most valuable studies,” she said. It not only traces the health of its women over generations, but also allows researchers to go back and make connections between exposures they had early in life and diseases they developed as adults.