Federal grant to boost fetal alcohol research at UICOMP

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Research into fetal alcohol spectrum disorders at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria has received a $1.7 million shot in the arm.

The five-year grant from the National Institute of Health's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism will enable the research headed by Dr. Shao-yu Chen and aimed at treating and preventing birth defects from fetal alcohol exposure to get underway. The goal of the research is to discover the mechanisms causing fetal alcohol disorders and study new strategies for prevention, according to a release from UICOMP.

"There is a fundamental gap in understanding how fetal exposure to alcohol leads to abnormal cell death, which is tied to abnormal development," said Dr. Chen, an associate professor in the Department of Cancer Biology and Pharmacology. "This study has potential implications for treatment and prevention of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. If we can understand how prenatal alcohol exposure can result in the cell death in the early embryo, we can develop an effective strategy for the prevention of FASD."

Fetal alcohol exposure is the leading known cause of mental retardation, the release said. "It is estimated that 40,000 babies per year are born in this country with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, an umbrella term that includes full-blown Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Annual costs related to individuals with FAS in the U.S. alone are as high as $7.8 billion. The toll on individuals and families is incalculable."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that national surveys show one in 13 pregnant women drink alcohol and some even go on binges. Drinking — especially binge drinking — can damage fetal brain development. About 14,000 pregnant women were surveyed.

Of those who said they drank, nearly 20 percent said they went on at least one binge,    downing four or more drinks, results noted. Pregnant women ages 35 to 44 were the biggest drinkers.

"While Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders are completely preventable, birth defects associated with prenatal alcohol exposure can occur before a woman even knows that she is pregnant," said Chen, who has spent nearly two decades researching FASD. "Consequently, FASD continues to be a major problem in our country."

The release said the project funded by the federal grant will allow Chen and his colleagues to study the role of a specific protein in ethanol-induced cell death and birth defects. The research is expected to provide possible targets at the molecular level for developing preventative treatment of human FASD. 

The announcement of the new NIH funding brings Chen's current total research funding to more than $3 million, the release said.

Dr. Jasti Rao, Senior Associate Dean for Research and chair of the Department of Cancer Biology and Pharmacology at UICOMP, praised Chen's accomplishment. "Dr. Chen's research has reached national and international prominence as recognized by the grants he has received from the NIH, which affirms his studies hold promise for improving prevention and treatment of FASD," Rao said. 

Dr. Sara Rusch, UICOMP's Regional Dean, said the grant is good news for the college and the local community. "Children are any community's most important resource. The type of research Dr. Chen is performing is unique and inspiring," Rusch said. "This is one example of the diverse, basic science research taking place at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria. While cancer research is our main focus, our team of researchers in the Department of Cancer Biology and Pharmacology are also known nationally and internationally for their work in Alzheimer's, stem cells, spinal cord injury, chronic exposure to depleted uranium and Chen's innovative and pioneering research on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder." 

"The award is an indication of the level of Chen's research," says Rusch. "It's good news, not just for the college but for the local community and the scientific community."

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).