Environmental Factor, May 2011, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
GEI grantees reflect on program at final annual meeting
By Matt Goad
The keynote address by Rappaport, above, outlined an emerging paradigm in epidemiological studies as scientists strive to measure individual exposures more comprehensively and accurately than previously possible. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Jianwei Mo, Ph.D., (right), vice president of Kumetrix, demonstrates a sensor that measures levels of heavy metals in the blood. Kumetrix developed the device with help from an NIEHS Small Business Innovation Research grant. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Sang Young Son, Ph.D., (left) explains his poster on his sensor for ultrafine particles. Son took measurements around the NIEHS side of the lake on campus and discovered some high numbers at the smoking area outside of C module. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Shown in the foreground with Balshaw, left, Charles M. Thompson, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Montana and co-owner of ATERIS Technologies, spoke to GEI grantees about the challenges and advantages of owning a small business to develop a sensor product while remaining in academia. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Thompson used a Venn diagram to explain how his work as a professor, NIH grantee, and small business owner intersect. Thompson decided to take unpaid time off from his professorship duties while working to start ATERIS, a small biotech company specializing in biosensor research and development. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
About 170 scientists from the NIH Genes, Environment, and Health Initiative (GEI) Exposure Biology Program gathered April 14-15 at NIEHS for the program's fourth annual grantee meeting. Grantees showed off the results and successes of their studies, and learned about how to proceed as the program comes to a close.
The Exposure Biology Program focuses on the development of innovative technologies to measure environmental exposures, diet, physical activity, psychosocial stress, and addictive substances that contribute to the development of disease, and identifies markers of the biological response to these factors.
David Balshaw, Ph.D., a program administrator in the NIEHS Center for Risks and Integrated Sciences, said the work of this program has changed science. "We have changed the way personal exposures are measured," he said. "We've developed tools that will allow you look at multiple exposures, to look at the interaction between physical activity, dietary assessment, and chemical exposure simultaneously."
After a welcome by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and an overview of the accomplishments of the program by Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, Stephen Rappaport, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, gave a presentation on the exposome as a paradigm for environmental health. As Rappaport explained, the exposome, a word coined in 2005, is a collection of all the exposures people have over their lifetimes (see related story(https://factor.niehs.nih.gov/2010/december/science-superfund.cfm)).
"The exposome really does change the way we think about environmental health," Rappaport explained. "It increases the coverage from air and water pollution, which is the primary factor people think about when the term 'environment' is used, to all chemicals. So essentially, it's everything except the genes."
The study of the exposome, Rappaport added, will result in a shift of how exposures are measured, from qualitative self-reports to quantitative measurements. Therefore, researchers need new methods to make these measurements. Much of the rest of the first day of the meeting was devoted to discussions and presentations on the development and distribution of new sensors, including posters and demonstrations by grantees.
Carol Boushey, Ph.D., a dietitian from Purdue University, showed off an iPhone app her team is working on that records what foods study participants eat. The traditional way to measure this would be a questionnaire, which comes with inherent flaws in accuracy and lacks details, Boushey said. Using the app, individuals take a photo of what they eat, and the app is able to identify foods and tell what amounts are on the plate.
Her team hopes to build the app into a tool that can be marketed to other researchers.
The best part of the grantee meeting, Boushey said, was getting to meet other researchers studying the exposome. "We get to see what other people are working on, so one day, maybe we'll be able to team up and really study the whole exposome," she said.
In his closing comments, Balshaw also mentioned the teamwork he's seen in the program. "I've been involved in a lot of very, very large programs across NIH," he remarked. "I've never seen a group of investigators who have come together like this group has, who have worked as hard, or who have been as productive."
Although this was the program's last meeting, the work will continue as the grantees prepare their products for distribution through the market for others to use.
Balshaw said the success of the project will be measured not just by the number of publications, which has been impressive in and of itself, but also by the measuring devices and biomarkers that the teams develop and the translation of those products into understanding how the environment influences human health.
The second day of the meeting was devoted to individual steering committee meetings.
(Matt Goad is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)