Seriously ill children across West Virginia will have easier access to new medical treatments in their own communities, thanks to a four-year, $1.8 million grant awarded to West Virginia University today by the National Institutes of Health.

“The NIH recognizes that parents of children in medically underserved and rural areas have difficulty gaining access to state-of-the-art treatments when their children are seriously ill,” said J. Philip Saul, M.D., a WVU pediatric cardiologist and executive vice president of WVU Medicine Children’s. “It’s often a long drive, or even requires an overnight stay, to visit WVU or another academic medical center. By building a pediatric clinical trials network across the state, we will give their doctors access to the same treatments that are available in Morgantown.”

The grant is a part of a $157 million package of children’s health research initiatives announced today by the NIH. The Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes program will investigate how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development – from conception through early childhood – influences the health of children and adolescents.

“Every baby should have the best opportunity to remain healthy and thrive throughout childhood,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “ECHO will help us better understand the factors that contribute to optimal health in children.”

WVU will partner with hospitals, medical practices, pediatric health programs, and others across the state to make the latest treatments available to children who can benefit.

“At WVU Medicine Children’s, we currently offer more than 80 clinical trials to children with a variety of illnesses, including cancer, cystic fibrosis, and others,” Dr. Saul said. “This funding will not only allow us to spread that access out across the state, but also expand the variety of clinical trials that we offer.”

The network will draw on existing partnerships, including the long-standing CARDIAC Project that offers cardiovascular risk education and intervention among children aged 15 years and younger across the state; the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, which has built a group of 61 providers in West Virginia who participate in clinical trials aimed mostly at adult illnesses; and the Center for Oral Health Research in Appalachia.

Saul is principal investigator for the project. Two other WVU faculty members, Lesley Cottrell, Ph.D., director of the WVU Center for Excellence in Disabilities, and pediatric cardiologist Lee Pyles, M.D., are co-leaders. The WVU Schools of Dentistry, Medicine and Public Health will participate in the project as well.