UNC Nutrition Research Scientist awarded $5.3M grant to study Fetal Alcohol Disorders

The UNC Nutrition Research Institute in Kannapolis has received a $5.3 million grant to study fetal alcohol disorders (FASD) in South Africa. The funds are from the National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The study will be conducted by Philip May, PhD, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) and Department of Nutrition. Dr. May is widely recognized as a leader in the field of FASD and has conducted extensive research on the epidemiology and risk factors for FASD. A former resident of North Carolina, May holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Catawba College and a Masters from Wake Forest University. He received his Doctorate of Sociology specializing in Demography and Epidemiology from the University of Montana.

Through their research in two South African communities, May and his team will expand the scientific understanding of the characteristics and patterns of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). “The highest rates of FASD in the world have been found to occur in the South African towns that we are focusing on,” says May. “We think we can improve lives dramatically; there are just so many kids to work with there.”

In South Africa, up to 20% of the population is estimated to be affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, a result of drinking during alcohol during pregnancy. Children with FASD suffer from birth defects ranging from learning disabilities to neurological, behavioral, and social deficits. Symptoms often include poor coordination, speech and language delays, hyperactive behavior or poor memory.

As part of the research study, May and his team hope to achieve five primary objectives:

  1. Identify effective methods for early intervention in children to minimize their disabilities and identify alcohol use in the prenatal period. The grant will fund two 18-month study trials of educational and nutritional interventions for 144 South African children beginning when they are 24 months old.
  2. Compare results from alcohol biomarker (EtG and FAEE) tests and self-reported alcohol use in the prenatal period.
  3. Establish and complete a detailed case control study of maternal nutrition (utilizing biomarkers and reported dietary intake) in the prenatal period.
  4. Continue to research the developmental trajectory of FASD from birth to 7 years in the above cohort and recruit a new newborn cohort for further longitudinal study of development of children with FASD. Understandings from these younger children will add to data already collected in multiple, other, cross-sectional studies to inform us about FASD from birth to 23 years.
  5. Collect data to assess any impact a comprehensive prevention model, particular prevention techniques, and participatory research may have had on risk factors for FASD and actual rates of FASD in the study communities.

May believes that this research will bring new understanding of FASD across the lifespan of a child. “Improved understandings about the specific characteristics and patterns of FASD in these South African populations have broad implications for public health in most every human population.”

About NRI

The UNC Nutrition Research Institute (NRI), part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is located on the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. The NRI is dedicated to developing the field of individualized nutrition — understanding variance in people’s DNA, metabolism and nutrient requirements and how this impacts health. Long term, the NRI’s discoveries will lead to individually tailored nutrition recommendations that will allow people to customize their diets in order to maximize wellness and reduce risk of disease.

For more information on the UNC Nutrition Research Institute, or to schedule an interview, contact Beverly Jordan at 704-250-5008 or Beverly_jordan@unc.edu.