Environmental Factor, August 2010, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
CDC Taps Portier to Head Programs
By Larry Lazarus
Senior Advisor Chris Portier, Ph.D., left NIEHS July 29 to serve as director of two high-profile programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Portier, a 32-year veteran of the Institute, assumes duties as director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH).
Portier said he was motivated to make the career change "due to my focus on direct public health issues during the last several years" and a commitment "to give back to my country and use what I have learned at the NIEHS to improve the health of the American public."
During his tenure at NIEHS, Portier served in several leadership roles. He was a principal investigator in the Environmental Systems Biology Group, former director of the Environmental Toxicology Program, and former associate director of the National Toxicology Program (NTP).
As senior advisor, Portier was a driving force in the NIEHS global health initiative. He helped design and fund a set of high-profile papers published in the journal The Lancet in November 2009 that identified important health benefits of interventions to alleviate global climate change (see story(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/2009/december/spotlight-climatechange.cfm)). He was the NIEHS lead on a white paper, published in April 2010 by a U.S. government-wide global health working group investigating the state-of-the-science on the human health consequences of climate change.
In a congratulatory note about Portier's new appointment, NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. said, "Over the years, I have often marveled at Chris' intellectual ability and what I would call brilliance when it comes to big picture visionary thinking. I know I can always count on Chris for new ideas and challenging discussion, which I believe has benefited our Institute in many ways."
Portier leaves the NIEHS/NTP with the support and admiration of many colleagues and collaborators. In particular, they stressed his committed mentorship, dynamic leadership style, broad understanding and appreciation of basic and applied science, and dedication to using modeling to improve risk assessment.
John Prichard, Ph.D., NIEHS acting scientific director, noted that Portier "led the effort to develop a master plan - a roadmap - for the NTP [due to] his emphasis on mechanistic endpoints, and he set priorities which continue to have a strong impact." During Portier's tenure as NTP associate director from 2001-2006, the program put out its landmark document,
Current NTP Associate Director John Bucher, Ph.D., said Portier brought "quantitative rigor" to the NTP by "developing an NTP database and high throughput screening [which] led to the Tox-21 initiative working beyond our dreams." This sentiment was reiterated by Nigel Walker, Ph.D., NTP deputy program director for science, who remarked, "We are living in the vision he started."
Portier's mentor and former NTP Associate Director George Lucier, Ph.D., had this to say: "Dr. Portier combines a remarkable intellect with a keen understanding of how to translate science into sound public policy decision-making."
Both Lucier and Birnbaum see Portier's move as an opportunity to strengthen collaborations in addressing environmental causes of human disease. The NCEH/ATSDR is an important member of the NTP, which is an interagency program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Explaining the mission of NCEH/ATSDR, Portier added, "The basic concept is anytime anyone needs help about toxic substances in their neighborhood, they call us. The NCEH looks at the people who live in an affected region." Portier said that the scientists and staff at NCEH/ATSDR also serve as boots on the ground as "the nation's first responders for health related issues."
This role involves not only major environmental disasters, such as waste dumps, toxic sites, hurricanes, and oil spills, but also "clusters of environmental health-related cancers," he added. Portier said the NCEH is also the "biomonitoring program for the U.S." and works hand-in-hand with organizations to conduct multidimensional evaluations that assess 450 known environmental chemicals in human blood and urine samples, to aid in understanding exposures in the United States.
(Larry Lazarus, Ph.D., is a principal investigator in the NIEHS Laboratory of Toxicology and Pharmacology.)