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Birnbaum Leads NIH Delegation

By Eddy Ball
February 2010

In her talk at the joint workshop, Birnbaum highlighted NIEHS/NTP as the world's premier environmental health sciences organization and placed research presented at the workshop clearly in the context of cancer as a complex disease influenced by the interaction of genetic and environmental factors.
(Photo courtesy of CAS and Guangbiao Zhou, Ph.D.)

Croyle spoke opposite CAS Deputy Director General Jinghua Cao, Ph.D., who welcomed workshop participants on behalf of the Chinese co-sponsor. Croyle is chair of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training director search committee( (Photo courtesy of NIH)

Samet gave the U.S. Keynote Address on Jan. 5. In 2008, he delivered a distinguished lecture( at NIEHS on airborne particulate pollution. (Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

Martin, a pulmonary medicine specialist, is a longtime advocate of NIH initiatives( in global environmental health. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., led a delegation of NIH scientists to the Joint Workshop on Environmental Pollution and Cancer in China and the U.S. held Jan 5-8 in Guangzhou, China. Birnbaum was the ranking member of the American delegation at the meeting jointly sponsored by the NIH and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)( Exit NIEHS at the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health (GIBH)( Exit NIEHS, where she delivered closing remarks.

The carefully choreographed workshop balanced the American and Chinese research perspectives on the links between environmental pollution and cancer, with alternating talks by U.S. and Chinese researchers during each session of the meeting.

Closing presentations by Birnbaum, "Cancer and the Environment: Filling Knowledge Gaps Together," and GIBH Assistant Director General Assistant Donghai Wu, Ph.D., marked the culmination of three days of focused seminars and discussions by experts from the U.S. and China.

Addressing cancer as a complex disease

Tying together themes developed during the course of the meeting, Birnbaum offered participants an overview of research by NIEHS and NTP on cancer in such initiatives as the Agricultural Health Study(, Sister Study(, and NTP( carcinogenesis assessment programs. She also offered participants a decidedly NIEHS perspective on the role that the intricate network of gene-environment interactions plays in the disease (see related Spotlight story(/2010/february/spotlight-reflects.cfm)).

Birnbaum argued that the traditional binary approach to disease - seeing genes and the environment as separate causes - "is an extreme oversimplification. Even in cases of 'genetic diseases,' such as cystic fibrosis, exposure is known to exacerbate symptoms," she explained, "and in 'environmental disease,' such as asbestosis, genetic susceptibility can influence disease severity."

Early in her talk, Birnbaum pointed to the "need to view the role of environment along the continuum from health to disease for individuals" with a better understanding of the "complex interactions" of genetic and molecular expression with the timing of exposures in determining health and disease outcomes as individuals age.

Birnbaum looked at advances in understanding the ways that early exposures can set the stage for later disease development through epigenetic modification of the human genome. She concluded her talk by looking to the future and urging her listeners to address the knowledge gaps she identified along the environment-cancer research continuum.

The workshop was one of more than 140 international seminars sponsored each year by CAS and its international partners, including NIH. CAS describes itself as "China's highest academic institution and national comprehensive R&D [research and development] center in natural sciences and high-tech innovation, [which] has always attached great importance to the academic exchange and cooperation with international science and technology communities."

Buffler was honored in June 2009 for her lifetime achievement in leukemia research during an awards ceremony( at the House of Lords in London. (Photo courtesy of Colin Hampden-White and CHILDREN with LEUKAEMIA)

The NIH Delegation at Guangzhou

In addition to Birnbaum, who was the emissary of the NIH Office of the Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., NIH scientists from the NIEHS, National Cancer Institute (NCI), Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and Fogarty International Center (FIC) joined several NIH grantees in presenting the American perspective during workshop sessions on a broad range of environmental links to development and progression of cancer.

Several of the speakers have close ties to NIEHS. NCI Director of the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences Robert Croyle, Ph.D., gave the American-side's welcome remarks, and NIH grantee Jonathan Samet, M.D., of the University of Southern California, officially opened the meeting by speaking on behalf of U.S. scientists about "Challenges and Opportunities in Investigating Cancer and the Environment."

NIEHS grantee and University of California, Berkeley Professor Patricia Buffler, Ph.D., reported on her award-winning research on childhood cancers. NIEHS representative Bill Martin, M.D., of the Office of the Director, reviewed the topics of pathogenesis and therapeutics in U.S. clinical research.

Speaking on the last full day of the workshop on Jan. 7 were Joshua Rosenthal, Ph.D., deputy director of international training and research at FIC, and Britt Reid, D.D.S., chief of the Modifiable Risk Factors Branch and NCI. Rosenthal outlined NIH funding opportunities for collaborative research, while Reid explored the workings of the NIH grants process.

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