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University of Iowa News Release


Sept. 15, 2010

UI to study behavioral risks for orofacial birth defects

Investigators in the University of Iowa College of Public Health have been awarded a five-year, $2.6 million grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of the National Institutes of Health, to study the causal effects of maternal risk behaviors on cleft lip and cleft palate.

"Orofacial clefts are common and burdensome birth defects with a complex set of causes that include genetic, behavioral and environmental contributors," said George Wehby, Ph.D., assistant professor of health management and policy and principal investigator of the study. "Accurate estimation of the effects of maternal risk behaviors is needed to develop effective counseling and prevention programs for cleft lip and palate."

In addition to Wehby, the UI research team includes: Jeff Murray, M.D., UI professor of neonatology and genetics and epidemiology; Paul Romitti, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology, and Lina Moreno Uribe, D.D.S., Ph.D., assistant professor of dentistry.

The study will examine a large, international set of data for nearly 9,000 mothers of children with cleft lip and palate and mothers of unaffected children. UI researchers will partner with colleagues from the U.S., Denmark and Norway to analyze the data.

The study aims to estimate how much maternal risk behaviors during pregnancy, such as smoking, alcohol use and obesity, affect the risk of cleft lip and cleft palate. The team will use a statistical approach known as a genetic instrumental variable model to estimate the average effects of these risk behaviors on cleft lip and palate and their interactive effects with genetic risk factors.

"The study involves a terrific set of collaborators to apply the very novel and powerful genetic instrumental variable approach," Murray said. "This will enable both scientists and clinicians to better understand the causes of cleft lip and palate and perhaps, for the first time, to provide accurate risk assessments using a combination of environmental and genetic risks."

PHOTOS: Low-res photo of George Wehby available here: For high-resolution photos, please contact Hannah Fletcher, 319-384-4277,

STORY SOURCE: The University of Iowa College of Public Health Office of Communications and External Relations, 4257 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 52242

MEDIA CONTACT: Hannah Fletcher, 319-384-4277,