Hoping to benefit from the Minnesota State Fair's lure as a magnet for children and their parents, some researchers are betting the fair is a good location for their latest study.
University of Minnesota scientists want to know which genes make children grow and develop normally. To answer that question they're looking for parents and children who are willing to donate about a half hour of their time, and a sample of their DNA.
Researchers hope to enroll up to 500 children in their Gopher Kids Study at their booth near the state fair grandstand. Judging by the dozen or so interested families lined up outside the booth when it opened Thursday, they will have no problem meeting that goal.
By the time they closed their booth at 3 p.m., researchers had already recruited more than 200 children.
Marie Andrews and her sons, Jack and Sam, were the study's very first recruits.
"It sounds like a neat study to participate in," said Andrews, of St. Paul. "We come out to the fair every year. And I think the ride tickets [were] a bit of an incentive for the boys."
Researchers give every child that participates in the study 10 free ride tickets and a backpack. Their family members will also receive free admission tickets for the next two State Fairs, to encourage them to come back and submit more DNA samples.
During this pilot phase of the project, researchers are flexible about what they need. They'd prefer to collect blood and fingernail samples, but don't require either.
Andrews' sons decided they didn't want to have their fingers pricked. But they were fine with letting their mom cut their fingernails.
Jack and Sam moved on to other stations to have their blood pressure, height, weight, and waist circumference recorded. Finally, after a half hour of questions and measurements, they were given small plastic tubes designed to collect their saliva.
It should have been an easy assignment for 9-year-old Sam, who is a self-described spitter. But the researchers wanted more spit than he can muster, and the narrow design of the tube didn't help matters. But after swallowing a little sugar, he gave them enough.
Jack, 11, managed to fill his vial. But he was a little turned off by the experience.
"Kind of gross, yeah," he said.
Logan Spector, one of the lead researchers behind the Gopher Kids Study, knew there would be challenges in bringing his project to the State Fair. He views this first year as an opportunity to learn what families are willing to do.
Ideally his subjects wouldn't eat for at least a half hour before they give their saliva samples. But in this environment, he's willing to take what he can get.
"We're mostly trying to make sure that we don't genotype chicken DNA or hotdog DNA," Spector said. "But you can still get usable DNA even if people have eaten."
The DNA that Spector gathers will help him learn more about the genes that are involved in making children grow and develop normally.
"This is really a followup on the Human Genome Project," he said. "They located where genes are in the human genome. But now we need to connect the content of those genes to what makes us who we are."
For example, if researchers can figure out which genes are responsible for promoting a healthy weight, they can then look for disruptions in those genes that could lead to unhealthy weight gain.
Spector said with the data he's collecting, researchers will be able to study pediatric obesity and other growth issues.
Roseville resident Katherine Scheil likes the goal of the project. So she enrolled her sons, David, 7, and William, 9.
"There's no reason we can't participate and help out other kids," Scheil said. "I feel very lucky. My kids are healthy. They've grown the proper rate. So I don't know what it would be like to experience that kind of challenge. But it would probably be very difficult."
Children who between the ages of 1-11 at the time of this year's fair are eligible to enroll in the Gopher Kids Study. One of their biological parents must also be willing to donate their DNA, so it can be used to determine which genes they passed on to their child.
If a lot of this year's study participants return during next year's fair, Spector said he will apply for a federal grant to expand his project. He said a study population of at least 10,000 children would allow researchers to look for rare genetic variants.