Wright State shuts down Fels study
- Published: October 11, 2018
The Fels Longitudinal Study, the world’s longest and largest longitudinal human growth study, has recently come to a close due to actions by Wright State University, which for decades has housed the study.
Last month the university, in the throes of a financial crisis, terminated the contracts of the two remaining Fels data collection specialists and the one professor still directly working with the study. The school also did not renew available National Institute of Health, or NIH, grant funding that would have allowed continued data collection.
It’s very unusual in the academic world to stop a grant that’s providing ongoing funding, according to Brad Towne, the professor whose contract was recently terminated.
“WSU ended WSU’s subcontract on this new grant mid-stream; there were three more years of funding remaining,” Towne wrote in an email. “This action, ending a subcontract agreement with another institution, is an extremely rare event. The NIH certainly does not view such actions as routine, as they negatively impact the science that was originally funded.”
The closing down of the Fels study, which has long been associated with Yellow Springs, has sparked concern from scientists studying human health, both in the Miami Valley and beyond.
“This year Wright State University closed the still-active and NIH-funded study, released its expert staff of researchers and left in limbo its immense data base produced over almost 90 years of research,” Wright State professor emerita of anthropology Anna Bellisari wrote in an email this week. “… Above all, it is a terrible loss to the science of human biology and health. As a physical anthropologist and former researcher with the Fels Study, I am dismayed and deeply concerned about the loss of this longterm study and its large data base. I can only think that the university is unaware of the unique scientific treasure that it has — otherwise, the loss makes absolutely no sense.”
The move will disrupt a longtime source of critical information regarding human health and development, according to Bruce Bradtmiller, anthropologist and CEO of Anthrotech, a local consulting business on human body size.
“The significance of the Fels study is phenomenal,” Bradtmiller said recently. “The data is unavailable anywhere else. It’s a shame to see it go. It’s a significant loss to the global scientific community.”
The Fels study was one of a handful of scientific longitudinal studies launched nationally in the late 1920s and early 1930s in an effort to understand childhood development in the face of the Great Depression, according to the book “Growth, Maturation and Body Composition: The Fels Longitudinal Study,” by Alex Roche, a former director of the study.
In recent decades, the Fels data has been used to study the relationship between childhood body composition and adult disease, including how the distribution of human body fat is related to obesity and the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, according to Bellisari. More recently, researchers used the data to study the aging process.
The recent move by Wright State to shut down the study followed several years of financial strain at the university, which has housed the Fels study since 1977. The university has struggled with $30 million in budget cuts following overspending in recent years, and this spring university leaders projected that enrollment this fall would be down, signaling the need for more budget cuts, according to a May 21 Dayton Daily News article.
Financial concerns led to the recent decision not to renew the Fels contract, according to Dr. Margaret Dunn, dean of the Wright State Boonshoft School of Medicine, in an email last week. The Fels study suffered from funding declines in recent years, she wrote, including the ending of a longtime NIH grant.
“When all NIH funding was discontinued after June of 2016, and no secondary funding source could be found to continue the full study, alternative approaches were explored,” she wrote. “The contract with the University of Texas at Houston was a good faith attempt to continue some measure of data collection on a budget that barely covered the costs of two staff who were retained.”
And continuing the Fels study was dependent on using the Research Park facilities for data collection, she said.
However, this summer WSU leaders decided to move all Research Park operations to the main campus as a cost-cutting measure, the email states. While classrooms are relatively easy to relocate, a space for data collection was not available, and the cost for modifying existing space was estimated at a half million dollars, Dunn wrote. And while the Fels study at one time drew dozens of participants weekly, participation in recent years dwindled.
“To recreate this same infrastructure in 2018 to accommodate fewer than three participants per week is simply not possible,” she wrote.
Consequently, Wright State last month terminated the employment of Towne, who has served first as director, then curator, of the Fels study for the past 27 years, and two data collection specialists, for whom the university was paying one half salary. It also terminated the NIH contract, which also funded the work of principal Fels investigator Miryoung Lee, formerly of Wright State and now associate professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health campus in Brownsville, Texas.
According to Lee in an email last week, she is hopeful that her investigator team at University of Texas can find an alternative sponsor to continue to gather data for the study in the Miami Valley.
“We are hoping to partner with another academic institution in the greater Dayton area to make this happen in the near future,” she wrote, stating that two and a half years of funding from the NIH is still available.
Towne is disappointed that, in his view, Wright State made no efforts to find another home for the research.
“The Fels Longitudinal Study was the last great study of human growth and development that began in the 1920s and 30s,” he wrote. “Because of its longevity, it became over time a study of body composition and health changes over the entire lifespan. It’s truly sad to see it come to such a hasty end.”
Towne is also concerned that the Fels data, collected over almost nine decades, be saved, and he is worried about the university’s capacity to do so, given its financial constraints.
However, according to Dunn of the medical school, the university will preserve the Fels data.
“We are committed to archiving and curating the vast amount of data produced by the study and properly maintaining the biosamples,” she wrote in an email. “University archivists have identified data sets for analysis by investigators ranging from medical students to senior faculty. Our geriatrics faculty see the archived Fels materials as a treasure trove of information that can be studied to better understand human aging, and are actively applying for research grants to be able to answer questions using the Fels materials.”
In response to Dunn’s statement, Towne wrote, “I am pleased to see that the school’s thinking with regard to the Fels Longitudinal Study data and resources has come around. This is a welcomed message given previous talk of the destruction of Fels Longitudinal Study resources.”
Towne also questioned Dunn’s assertion that the current Fels study funding was minimal. While a longtime NIH grant had come to an end in 2016, the NIH had awarded a new grant to Dr. Lee to continue the research, first at Wright State and then, after she moved to the University of Texas, as a subcontract with that school. Valued at more than $100,000 in funding per year, the current NIH grant for the Fels project was considerable, he said.
“It was not small potatoes,” he said.
Wright State Director of Communications Seth Bauguess did not respond to a request for comment regarding the closing down of the Fels study.
Almost 90 years of data
The Fels study was launched in 1929 by then-Antioch College President Arthur Morgan, according to the Roche book.
“Arthur Morgan posed a question that sounds simple: ‘What makes people different?’” Roche wrote. “This is one of many questions that sound simple but are extremely difficult to answer. Mr. Morgan concluded that a longitudinal study from conception to adulthood was required.”
Morgan then approached a variety of scientists to take on this question, but all turned him down, the book states. He then approached Samuel Fels, a Philadelphia philanthropist, who agreed to fund the project.
The study began under the direction of Dr. Lester Sontag, who stayed on as director for almost 40 years. And while many questioned the siting of a significant scientific study in a sleepy Midwestern town, the answer for why the Fels study was located in Yellow Springs was simple, according to Roche.
“Many are puzzled by the location of the Fels Longitudinal Study and the Fels Research Institute in Yellow Springs, unaffected by the flow of resources and expertise to large well-known universities such as Harvard and Stanford,” Roche wrote, noting that it was natural to locate the study at Antioch College due to the friendship between Fels and Morgan.
The study began with a staff of three and a budget of $5,000, according to the Roche book. Between 12 and 20 participants, initially pregnant women, were enrolled in the study each year, all of whom lived within a 30-mile radius of Yellow Springs, and the first measurements of the research babies were taken near the time of their births.
The children were brought back each year to be weighed, measured, photographed and to give blood and body fat samples. X-rays of hands were taken, and machines measured the body’s levels of fat and muscle, among other measurements, according to Roche.
“You had to do it the Fels way. It was very precise,” said villager Jean Payne, who worked as a Fels data collection specialist for 23 years.
While initially the Fels research took place at G. Stanley Hall Hall on the Antioch campus, it later moved to what is now called the Fels building on Livermore Street. When the study’s then-funder, the Fels Fund of Philadelphia, faced financial difficulties in the mid-1970s, the fund donated the study to Wright State University to be part of the university’s new medical school. At that point, the study was located in the Wright State clinic in Yellow Springs. Later the study moved to a building in Research Park in Beavercreek, facilities owned by Wright State.
Many prominent physical anthropologists and physicians worked with the Fels study over the years, according to Bellisari. Earle Reynolds in the 1940s “was the first to document body fat distribution changes in boys and girls and their relationship to adult obesity.” Then Harvard researcher Stanley Garn “brought the study into national and international prominence through work on skeletal and dental maturation and age changes in adipose tissue (fat),” she wrote.
And beginning in the 1970s, Dr. Alex Roche, who took over the study’s leadership, “added a strong applied dimension to the study by relating research findings to health and disease dimensions,” including how childhood body fat distribution contributed to adult heart disease, according to Bellisari. Roche recruited more than two dozen physical anthropologists to work at Fels as post-docs or faculty members, including Bellisari.
Roche was an inspiration to work with, according to Payne.
“He’d go home from work with a stack of books and come back the next day having read them. Then he’d take more books home that same night,” she said. “I was impressed with how much he knew and how he always strived to know more.”
The Fels project combined scientific rigor with the human connection of extended contact with local children and families, Payne said.
“There was an atmosphere of pride at work and a lot of warmth, watching these kids grow,” Payne said.
At the study’s recent end, it still had about 1,000 active participants, according to Bellisari, along with 1,000 additional family members, spanning as many as four generations. The study was unique in its multi-generational focus, Bellisari said.
One of the longterm Fels families was the Dykstra/Bothwell family. Susan Dykstra Bothwell remembers that her mother signed on before Sue was born, in the mid-’40s. As a child participant in the study, Sue remembers well her annual visits to the Fels study, and especially that she got to choose a toy from the toy closet when the exam was complete.
She continued taking part in the study during her adulthood when, after she moved to Oregon, Fels would pay for her to return to Yellow Springs for her annual appointment. Then, when she moved back to town, she enrolled her own children, including son Seth.
Seth Bothwell continued taking part in Fels research as an adult and later, with his wife, Erica, enrolled their own children in the study. Recently the two recounted their pride in taking part in the study.
“It was a big part of our lives. You always looked forward to it. We liked being involved,” he said. “I’m sorry it’s ending.”
While Fels data collection and contact with study participants will end due to the recent Wright State actions, researchers continue to use Fels data in their work, and to submit grant requests for additional funding from the NIH to support the study, according to Lee from the University of Texas.
The NIH contract recently discontinued by Wright State still has two and a half years of funding available to support continued data collection, Lee wrote, stating, “My investigator team (including Dr. Stefan Czerwinski) at UTHealth School of Public Health and other collaborators are still hoping to continue data collection in Fels participants for the current study.”
That data collection for the Fels study can only continue if the study finds a new academic partner, she said.
Continuing the study is critical because “The significance of the study is enormous to the scientific community,” Lee wrote, stating that the Fels data has been the foundation of more than 1,000 publications. It also formed the basis of infant growth charts that are used for children throughout the world. The Fels study data was also among the first to quantify health risks during childhood for adult diseases such as hypertension and obesity.
“We believe it is the longest running human health study in the world,” Lee wrote. “If it continues, we would be celebrating the 90th anniversary of continuous research in 2019.”