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Council Meeting Highlights Mission Accomplishments

By Eddy Ball
October 2009

Mary Gant
During the Director's Report, Bethesda-based NIEHS Legislative Liaison Mary Gant was called upon to explain the status of federal legislation that will impact the Institute and environmental health sciences in general. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Listening to Birnbaum's presentation
Shown left to right, Zeldin, Bucher and NIEHS Executive Officer Marc Hollander listened to Birnbaum's presentation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Nsedu Obot Witherspoon
Like several of her colleagues, Council member Nsedu Obot Witherspoon encouraged the Institute to publicize accomplishments compiled by the NIEHS Office of the Deputy Director's planning staff for the NIH Biennial Report. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Birnbaum, left, and Kleeberger
After their presentations, Birnbaum, left, and Kleeberger listened thoughtfully as Bucher discussed the challenges NTP faces with the emerging demands on toxicology. Birnbaum said she's not convinced we have at this point "the whole story for toxicity in the 21st century."
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Tour of the Clinical Research Unit
Following his report, Zeldin, foreground right, took Council members on a tour of the Clinical Research Unit. Zeldin is shown responding to a question from member Hillary Carpenter, Ph.D., foreground left. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

During his presentation, Pritchard touted the success of this year's Summers of Discovery program and the performance of the postdoctoral fellows in the NIH Fellows Award for Research Excellence (FARE) competition. "We had more candidates apply for this than any other IC except Cancer" he said.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Molecular Biologist Paul Wade
The science talk by molecular biologist Paul Wade, above, gave NIEHS a chance to showcase the excellence of its science. Wade focused on the role of chromatin remodeling in breast cancer.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Heindel, above, has been on the cutting edge of the Institute's BPA initiatives. He wants the newly funded investigators to take a major step forward by producing high-quality data that can be extrapolated to human beings. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Throughout the September 15-16 meeting of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council (NAEHSC) ( NIEHS, the discussions were upbeat. Each speaker on the agenda presented evidence ( steady advancement toward meeting the priorities that Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., has articulated in the course of her eight-month tenure at the head of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP).

The meeting opened with a report by Birnbaum featuring an impressive catalogue of accomplishments and budgetary developments. In the area of finance, she noted that more than 86% of the $195 million NIEHS American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds had been awarded for some 290 grants — "thanks to the heroic efforts of our extramural program, review, and grants management staff." She also observed that there is every indication NIEHS will enjoy what is proportionately the largest increase in its FY 2010 budget of any NIH institute or center (IC).

Turning to the topic of scientific excellence, Birnbaum highlighted some of the top papers of the last quarter. Then, she announced, with justifiable pride, that two veteran grantees — Leona Samson, Ph.D.( Exit NIEHS, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Sarah Tishkoff, Ph.D. ( Exit NIEHS, of the University of Pennsylvania — will be the first NIEHS-supported scientists to receive the prestigious NIH Director's Pioneer Awards in the NIH program's six-year history.

Birnbaum outlined progress on recruiting a permanent leadership team as she urged the Council members to spread the word about the Institute's "wide open" searches for permanent heads of the two research divisions — a scientific director to lead the Division of Intramural Research (DIR) and a director to head the Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) — as well as the deputy director, education director and four liaison positions for the NIEHS Bethesda office.

Referring to her several meetings with new NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., Birnbaum also touched on progress in meeting another of her goals for NIEHS — the enhanced integration of resources and efforts on every level of operation. Several of the other speakers also returned to the theme in their own reports.

NIEHS Acting Deputy Director Steve Kleeberger, Ph.D., described his ongoing efforts to restructure the Office of the Deputy Director and his office's activities in finalizing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the NIEHS and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to further enhance research collaborations.

NTP Associate Director John Bucher, Ph.D., reported on interagency efforts in relation to the Tox 21 MOU and alternative testing.

In his report, NIEHS Acting Clinical Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D., outlined key collaborations within NIEHS, NIH and NTP, with other agencies, especially EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and with institutional partners, including Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Leading up to the meeting's scientific presentation by NIEHS Principal Investigator Paul Wade, Ph.D., NIEHS Acting Scientific Director John Pritchard, Ph.D., reported on DIR activities. He discussed staffing initiatives, training accomplishments and future collaborations with graduate schools at area universities, as well as research milestones, such as the Grand Opening of the NIEHS Clinical Research Unit and the completion of enrollment for the 50,000-person cohort of the Sister Study.

The theme of collaboration among agencies and principal investigators ran through a series of presentations on activities of DERT — reports by Superfund Research Program External Advisory Panel Member William McFarland, Ph.D., NIEHS Center for Risk and Integrated Sciences Director William Suk, Ph.D., and Acting DERT Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D. Although Collman's presentation focused on the outstanding performance of her DERT staff in processing, reviewing and approving ARRA grants, her written report highlighted the division's impressive series of collaborative and partnership-building efforts, in addition to noting accomplishments of grantees and staff.

The open session of Council concluded with reports by NIEHS Health Science Administrators Jerry Heindel, Ph.D., and Sri Nadadur, Ph.D., (see text box) on two innovative initiatives.

ENMs present a special challenge to researchers, Nadadur explained, because of the lack of uniformity in production and surface configuration. Past research has produced conflicting results from the different assays used. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Stefani Hines
Reflecting on the presentations by Heindel and Nadadur, member Stefani Hines, above, commented, "This seems to be a very well-coordinated effort beforehand... very interesting and exciting."
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

BPA and Nano — Helping Keep Investigators on the Same Page

Heindel and Nadadur presented reports on the new ARRA-funded Grand Opportunities (GO) initiatives on bisphenol A (BPA) and engineered nano-materials (ENMs) health and safety that are structured to foster productive collaborations and platform compatibility within their respective groups of investigators. While the specific challenges facing investigators working on each initiative may be distinctive, Heindel and Nadadur obviously collaborated on overall project design for the innovative two-year RC2 grants.

Both initiatives include provisions for ensuring their research will have the greatest impact possible:

  • Meetings of grantees at NIEHS during October to coordinate research design and goals from the outset their projects
  • Ongoing coordination of protocols, models, endpoints, diets/exposure routes and dosages, measurements and data validation across different laboratories
  • Collaboration and sharing of tissues among animal researchers and epidemiologists
  • Emphasis on collaborations with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and NTP research programs

The goals of both initiatives are ambitious - in the case of BPA, to produce "primary data sets for use in regulatory assessment," and in the case of ENMs, to "develop guidelines for environmental health effects and safety." Enabling objectives address the shortcomings of current research on BPA and ENMs with an injunction to strive for the development of "reliable and reproducible methods to assess exposure and biological response/toxicological endpoints."

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