Pediatrics department conducts genetic research at fair

The goal of the study was to better understand how DNA contributes to normal juvenile development.

Arden Lillemoe, one of the many children who visit the Minnesota State Fair, rides a car-carrousel on Saturday.  The Pediatrics Department conducts research on children at the Fair to better understand DNA characteristics.

Jason Kopp

Arden Lillemoe, one of the many children who visit the Minnesota State Fair, rides a car-carrousel on Saturday. The Pediatrics Department conducts research on children at the Fair to better understand DNA characteristics.

Noah Johnson

This year, the Minnesota State Fair provided some young fairgoers with more than fried food on sticks and fresh air.

Dr. Logan Spector, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, led a team of researchers to develop a better understanding of the relationship between people’s genetics and their physical characteristics, and which genes contribute to normal childhood development.

“It’s important for us to measure kids’ development so we can fill some of the gaps in what we know about genetics,” Crystal Blommer, one of the researchers, said. Blommer works at the University’s Masonic Cancer Center.

Participating families spent half an hour as University staff and student volunteers took measurements of their children’s weight, height, waist circumference and blood pressure. In addition, the researchers asked for samples of children’s blood, saliva and fingernails, but these were optional.

“We know no one comes to the fair to have their fingers pricked,” Spector said.

The measurements collected by researchers were enough to make the other samples less necessary.

The effort, organized by the University’s Department of Pediatrics and known as the Gopher Kids Study, began on the opening day of the fair, Aug. 26, and lasted until Sept. 1. Researchers will return to the fair the next two years.

During their time at this year’s fair, researchers hoped to examine at least 500 children, a number they reached sooner than expected.

According to Spector, the team had examined more than 500 children by Aug. 28, just two days after the study began.

“After that, we just kept going,” he said.

Walter Hunziker, a School of Public Health student, was one of the assistant researchers who examined children as Spector discussed details of the study with parents.

According to Hunziker, the study required participating children to be ages one to 11, and to reside in Minnesota or Pierce and St. Croix counties in Wisconsin.

As motivation to participate in the study, children whose parents allowed them to be examined received a backpack and 10 free ride tickets, as well as admission tickets for themselves and one parent for the 2011 and 2012 State Fairs.

This encouraged families to return to the fair the next two years and have their children re-examined to provide supplemental information on their development, Spector said.

Before testing began each day, Spector and the other researchers took the stage outside the University of Minnesota building to explain the nature of their research to potential participants. They used a “mock family” scenario to teach the function of alleles, which constitute the DNA sequence of a person’s genes. In addition, Spector explained the motivation for the study.

“The Human Genome Project mapped our species’ genes in the 20th century, but not their purpose. That’s our goal,” he said.

Now that the study at the fair has ended, Spector and his team have set their sights on research at a higher level. Spector said that because of the good return the study received at the fair this year, he hopes to take the study to the National Institutes of Health.

Spector has been interested in DNA and its ramifications from an early age.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a professional basketball player,” he said. “Once I realized I was too short to get into the NBA, I became fascinated with genetics.”