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NIH Exposure Biology Workshop Sets the Stage for the Genes and Environment Initiative

By Ernie Hood
June 2006

NIEHS Director David Schwartz
NIEHS Director David Schwartz addresses the Exposure Biology Workshop participants. (Photo by Steve McCaw, Image Associates)

A group of more than 100 participants from academia, government, and industry gathered May 16-17 in Greensboro to help the NIEHS develop a plan for the Exposure Biology Program (EBP), the environmental arm of the recently-announced Genes and Environment Initiative (GEI). EBP is an ambitious trans-NIH program designed to accelerate understanding of how genetic and environmental risk factors influence human health and disease.

The NIH Exposure Biology Workshop was co-sponsored by partner institutions in the GEI-the NIEHS and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). NIEHS Director David Schwartz and NHGRI Director Francis Collins co-chaired, and Brenda Weis of the NIEHS and Phylliss Frosst of NHGRI co-organized the event. The workshop focused largely on identifying new technologies and approaches to measure diet and physical activity, personal exposures to chemical and biological agents, and the biological responses to these exposures.

"What we're doing is linking exposure to biology to disease in a very intimate way," said Schwartz, "so that we focus on the disease process, and can understand the genetics that underlie the susceptibility to these various exposures and environmental stressors."

Collins exhorted the diverse panel of experts to be creative and imaginative in their approach to the questions and issues at hand. "I want to ask you to step outside of your usual disciplinary boundaries, to think boldly with us about ways that we could capitalize on the opportunities that are here technologically to move this field forward at a more rapid pace," he said.

Scientific sessions designed to brief participants on the latest information in technology development, pathogenic mechanisms of exposure, and exposure applications took up much of the first day of the workshop.

Later, attendees took part in break-out discussion sections intended to elicit specific recommendations for effective, efficient research initiatives and technology development in seven core arenas: Assessing Exposures, Biological Response to Exposures, Dietary Factors, Physical Activity, and Psychosocial Stressors, Efficient Approaches to Study Design and Biomarker Validation, and Intelligent Systems, Databases, and Computation. The detailed consensus reports from the groups will form the basis for tactical planning for the EBP, both to focus research investments in the short-term (next five years) and to establish a long-term research infrastructure. Such a wealth of information emerged from the groups' reports that Collins likened the experience to "drinking from a fire hydrant."

The near-term outlook for developing technologies to identify and measure exposures and their biological impacts appears to be excellent. Sensor technology is progressing rapidly at all levels, including applications to environmental and personal monitoring of exposures, dietary intake and physical activity. Sensors, probes, and imaging devices gather data on exposure and biological responses at the cellular and sub-cellular (molecular) levels. Experts reported that many of these technologies are either already available and can be used immediately, or can be readily adapted, for EBP applications. For example, commercially available devices for monitoring individual physical activity could be enhanced to provide additional data on location, ambient environmental conditions, or specified physiologic information.

Making the most of what's available now was also the theme of recommendations addressing data collection and reporting, and access to biological samples for analysis. Participants supported the idea of adapting existing cellular and wireless technologies to gather massive amounts of exposure data from sensors. Several groups recommended partnering with other agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to leverage biosample repositories like the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to more rapidly advance the development of exposure biomarkers.

The workshop also included a special discussion on Training the Next Generation of Exposure Scientists and a special presentation on the ethical and societal implications of the planned research activities within the EBP.

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