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Environmental Factor

March 2011

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DISCOVER grantees consider the value of center funding

By Matt Goad
March 2011

Gwen Collman,  Ph.D.

Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, opened the meeting last month with a charge to attendees. "What we want to get out of today is your thoughts about how NIEHS can develop a better, more robust translational research program that better fits all the needs of the environmental health sciences community," Collman said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

George Leikauf, Ph.D.

Leikauf, center, sparked a lively discussion at the DISCOVER meeting when he asked how center grants promote quality research and effective translation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Frederica Perera, Dr.P.H.

Although the Columbia team left early to beat a snowstorm approaching New York and missed the afternoon's panel discussion, Perera and her group outlined their programs in basic and clinical research, treatment, and prevention during a morning presentation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Rick Woychik, Ph.D., center right, and Kim McAllister, Ph.D., seated right

Attending one of his first meetings since joining the top leadership of NIEHS, Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., center right, said he knew collaborative research could be done with an R01 grant, but added, "I also know that there are limitations." Seated to his right is Kim McAllister, Ph.D., an NIEHS health science administrator and co-chair of the panel discussion. McAllister's colleague, Program Administrator David Balshaw, Ph.D., left, sits at the end of the row. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Steven Kleeberger, Ph.D.

Kleeberger discussed his research with a cohort of children in Argentina on the influence of gender and breastfeeding on susceptibility to severe acute lung disease among intensively monitored infants at high risk. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Fred Miller, M.D., Ph.D.,

The panel at the meeting included DISCOVER grantees, grantees from other types of center programs, and NIEHS scientists. Shown above, NIEHS Principal Investigator Fred Miller, M.D., Ph.D., above, brought his perspective as a clinical researcher to bear on the discussions. Miller heads the NIEHS Environmental Autoimmunity Group on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS Disease Investigation Through Specialized Clinically-Oriented Ventures in Environmental Research (DISCOVER) program grantees shared successes and talked about translation of their research (see text box), when they got together for a meeting and series of presentations Feb. 1 in the NIEHS Rodbell Auditorium.

To open the meeting, representatives from the three DISCOVER centers presented summaries of the research they have conducted with their NIEHS grants.

A panel discussion with the grantees and NIEHS representatives followed. One of the most stimulating exchanges of their daylong meeting took place as they explored what makes the center grant design for integrating basic and clinical research with multi-faceted translation initiatives, so innovative and productive.

The challenge

George Leikauf, Ph.D.( Exit NIEHS, an NIEHS grantee from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, kicked off the discussion about funding mechanisms with a challenge to the grantees to articulate just why what they accomplished with the centers grants could not have been achieved as well with the typical individual researcher-initiated grant (R01).

"Maybe we're in the mid-stage of this," Leikauf admitted. "Maybe we're in the middle of the pregnancy, and we don't necessarily want to judge whether an Einstein's going to be born, but I think it's something that needs to be addressed."

Gary Miller, Ph.D., an NIEHS grantee from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, took the Einstein reference a step further to emphasize the need to take an even longer term perspective on the topic. "Einstein was kind of a goof until he was about 20," Miller said. "We need to go way past birth to see the outcome from him."

A dynasty of researchers

Miller pointed to the example of the trainees included in the center model, as a benefit above and beyond what an R01 grant can provide. Marsha Wills-Karp, Ph.D, of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, also spoke about the dynasty of researchers and clinicians that go into making a center successful by fostering inter-disciplinary collaborations.

Patrick Breysse, Ph.D., director of the Center for Childhood Asthma in the Urban Environment at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, offered a more specific example. Breakthroughs on the connection between disruption of the Nrf2 gene pathway and asthma, Breysse explained, wouldn't have been possible without access to human tissue that the center grant made possible by increasing collaboration between departments at Johns Hopkins.

In addition to the Johns Hopkins center, the other DISCOVER centers are The Role of Airborne PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and DEP (diesel exhaust particles) in the Pathogenesis of Childhood Asthma center at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, and the Cardiovascular Disease and Traffic-Related Air Pollution center at the University of Washington School of Public Health, directed by Joel Kaufman, M.D.

NIEHS Health Scientist Administrator Kimberly Gray, Ph.D., pointed to the notable success of bringing non-environmental scientists into the centers. The Hopkins and Columbia centers worked within their department's existing cadre of scientists to expand exploration, and the Washington center developed a new team of scientists, including a cardiologist/stem cell scientist and a vascular physiologist from the urology department, to investigate other potential mechanisms of diesel's effect on cardiovascular disease risk.

During her presentation in the morning session, Frederica Perera, Dr.P.H.( Exit NIEHS, director of the Columbia center, spoke of the benefits of having a physician scientist, Rachel Miller, M.D., as part of the team's leadership. Miller's clinical knowledge helps to balance Perera's public health and environmental health science background, Perera noted.

"It's very helpful to have the clinician's point of view," Perera added, and Miller made outreach to clinicians more effective.

Also making a presentation at the daylong meeting was Steven Kleeberger, Ph.D, principal investigator in the Environmental Genetics Group, who spoke about the Intramural Director's Challenge study focused on mechanisms of oxidative stress-induced disease.

(Matt Goad is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

Translation on several levels

Translational research was built in as a major component of the DISCOVER grants. The "bench to bedside" and "bench to public health" concepts of developing practical applications of basic research - and how to measure that translation - were major topics of discussion at the meeting.

One of the advantages of the DISCOVER centers, researchers agreed, is that their collaborative nature lends itself to combining animal and human studies, which helps the transition from the basic and clinical research into education of patients, parents, and practitioners; community engagement; treatment; prevention; and change in public health policy.

The challenge, though, comes from knowing how to measure the practical applications of the research beyond the high-impact research studies generated.

Christie Drew, Ph.D., chief of the NIEHS Program Analysis Branch (PAB), ( about the issues her branch has with deciding how to track research outcomes, whether it be legislative testimony, public policy change, or impact in the community. Specific reporting guidelines can be helpful, Drew said, but she also worried that they can be constrictive.

Drew also mentioned the draft of the new metrics manual that PAB is working on to help grantees to become aware of how their activities further the goal of translation and suggest new metrics for measuring their impact.

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