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Environmental Factor

October 2011

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Birnbaum addresses ISEE Barcelona

By Eddy Ball
October 2011

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Birnbaum was one member of an NIEHS delegation of intramural scientists, grant administators, and grantees who participated in the meeting in Barcelona. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., gave a keynote lecture before an international group of researchers at the annual meeting( Exit NIEHS of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology( Exit NIEHS Sept. 13-16 in Barcelona, Spain.

Birnbaum, who is the first toxicologist to head NIEHS, addressed attendees on the final day of the meeting, advocating expanded cross-disciplinary research in a talk titled “How can toxicology inform environmental epidemiology? A new approach to environmental health.”

An integrated approach to environmental health research

Birnbaum opened her talk with her central premise. “The disciplines of environmental epidemiology and toxicology must work closely together,” she said, “on the challenges of addressing human relevance to existing experimental models by sharing techniques and approaches to fill relevant data gaps to improve public health.”

Linking toxicology's contributions to environmental health science, Birnbaum structured her talk around four important ways toxicology has helped to further environmental epidemiology:

  • Provided solid mechanistic evidence to strengthen epidemiologic conclusions 
  • Helped inform design of epidemiological studies by identifying windows of susceptibility
  • Developed new methods to identify interim phenotypes related to biological response to environmental exposures
  • Contributed evidence for more complex dose response relationships that explain why various exposures have differing health effects

Bisphenol A research: A model for collaboration

In the course of her talk, Birnbaum referred to a number of examples to support her argument, concluding with what she described as a model for this kind of integrated research, the NIEHS signature program on the health effects of bisphenol A (BPA) to support and integrate human and animal research and determine if exposure to BPA poses a health risk.

According to Birnbaum, this goal is being accomplished by creating a research environment to stimulate collaboration across disciplines and to promote shared resources with the development of reliable and reproducible methods. Ultimately, Birnbaum maintained, NIEHS support should help the two camps of BPA researchers - those involved in guideline studies and those involved in investigator-initiated studies - find common ground. She pointed to the need for replacing what she called a comparison of apples and oranges with more appreciation for what each group's approach can contribute to understanding of BPA and help fill the gaps in current BPA research.

Birnbaum concluded the talk with a brief discussion of the consortium funded by 40 grants from NIEHS to develop hypothesis-driven mechanistic studies of BPA in humans and animals focusing on disease/dysfunction endpoints that can be added to a guideline study. She said the next milestone in the program will be a grantee meeting at NIEHS Jan. 17-19, 2012.

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