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October 2011

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Council briefed on new developments at NIEHS

By Ernie Hood
October 2011

134th NAEHSC council meets

This was the 134th meeting of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council, known to people at NIEHS simply as Council. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

As she does at every Council meeting, Birnbaum provided Council members with an update on events, activities, and accomplishments at NIEHS/NTP since its last session. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS Deputy Director Richard Woychik, Ph.D.

The NIEHS strategic planning process is progressing well, according to Woychik, with eight overarching themes poised to guide discussions at the next stakeholders workshop, to be held this month in Research Triangle Park, N.C. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Associate Director for Management, Joellen M. Austin, M.P.A.

Austin appeared before Council for the first time. She reported excellent progress in learning names and faces around the Institute, and said she is slowly but surely learning her way around the Triangle. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

There's never a dull moment at NIEHS. That truth was quite evident at the latest meeting of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council Sept. 1-2, as members heard updates on a wide variety of recent activities and achievements at NIEHS.

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., reported on news and highlights from the Institute since the May Council meeting, including the pending appointment of the new NIEHS scientific director. She thanked David Miller, Ph.D., for filling in admirably as acting scientific director for many months while the lengthy search to fill that position was being conducted. Birnbaum also noted the June appointment of Joellen Austin as the new NIEHS executive officer heading the Office of Management(

New leadership, new directions

In her debut presentation to Council, Austin reviewed the organization and duties of the Office of Management. “The number one job of the executive officer and, by extension, the Office of Management is to ensure responsible and excellent stewardship and support of the [NIEHS] mission,” she said. “Sometimes that means saying no; more often it means finding the creative way to make something happen in support of our mission.”

NIEHS Deputy Director Richard Woychik, Ph.D., updated Council on recent developments in the Institute's strategic planning process. The three-day strategic planning stakeholder community workshop held in July (see story( yielded an enormous amount of material, with 97 breakout sessions spawning 13 priority topics( that organizers have since consolidated into eight overarching themes to guide discussions moving forward. Woychik noted that the next step in the 15-month strategic planning process will be the smaller stakeholders workshop scheduled Oct. 13-14.

DERT Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., focused much of her presentation on the NIH Common Fund( Exit NIEHS and the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research( Exit NIEHS, both of which represent major sources of potential funding and collaborations for NIEHS/NTP scientists. The Common Fund is designed to support innovate, creative, and transformative research that transcends the capabilities of any single NIH institute or center.

Among the many new program ideas( Exit NIEHS currently under consideration is one submitted by NIEHS, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and several other NIH partners called “Developmental Origins of Health and Disease: Disease Prevention Across Generations,” intended to study the fundamental principle underlying many chronic diseases and conditions in children and adults, including neurodegenerative diseases. NIEHS contribution to the $40 million neuro blueprint for 2012 will double compared to recent years due to the growth in neuroscience research funding by NIEHS, mainly stemming from increasing interest in early life exposures and neurodevelopment, Collman noted.

Disseminating NIEHS/NTP science

Council members were also updated on recent developments in the NTP( Exit NIEHS by Associate Director John Bucher, Ph.D., the Office of Communications and Public Liaison( by Director Christine Flowers, and the NIEHS Board of Scientific Counselors (BSC) for the Division of Intramural Research( by chair Jack Keene, Ph.D. of Duke University.

Bucher described the 12th Report on Carcinogens( Exit NIEHS (RoC), released June 10. Newly reviewed substances in this RoC include aristolochic acids, captafol, cobalt-tungsten carbide: powders and hard metals, formaldehyde, certain glass wool fibers (inhalable), ortho-nitrotoluene, riddelliine, and styrene.

Among the many communications accomplishments reported by Flowers were a well-attended community forum held at NIEHS Aug. 29 to discuss the benefits of investment in federal research that featured Congressman David Price (D-NC), as well as a successful, concerted effort in recent months to increase coverage of the Institute in the local news media.

For the benefit of newer Council members who may have been unfamiliar with the process, Keene outlined the important functions of the BSC, which conducts in-depth reviews of intramural research labs within NIEHS.

The enormous breadth encompassed by the environmental health sciences was on full display in the two absorbing scientific presentations at the meeting. There was also considerable interest in a presentation by Seymour Garte of the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR), who reported the results of his study of CSR peer review of toxicology and environmental health-related NIH grant applications (see text box).

(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

DERT Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D.

Collman briefed Council members on the activities and organization of the NIH Common Fund. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Seymour Garte, Ph.D., director of the Division of Physiological and Pathological Science at CSR

Garte had good news for toxicology and EHS researchers. He reported that their concerns about the NIH review process are being addressed and the situation is improving. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

at podium, Christine Bruske Flowers, M.P.A.

Flowers, at the podium, right, shared several recent video clips produced by her staff. The clip on the screen featured NIEHS research fellow Jessica Williams, Ph.D., discussing new findings about DNA replication stability. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

left to right, Deborah Winn, Ph.D., Julia Brody, Ph.D., and Andrea Hricko

Shown left to right, ex-officio Council member Deborah Winn, Ph.D., of the National Cancer Institute, discussed a point with members Julia Brody, Ph.D., of the Silent Spring Institute, and Andrea Hricko, of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Changes at CSR bring more balance for tox and EHS Applications

In recent years, there has been concern within the toxicology and environmental health sciences (EHS) communities that NIH grant applications from the fields were not being reviewed to their best advantage, because they were spread throughout the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR)( Exit NIEHS, rather than going to study sections with specific expertise, as had been the case with toxicology applications in the past. Some applicants felt that since the study sections were reorganized in 2004, toxicology and EHS have not had a natural home within CSR, and approval rates have suffered as a result.

Responding to this concern, CSR established a test Special Emphasis Panel (SEP) called Systemic Injury from Environmental Exposure (SIEE), which was to run for three funding rounds and then be evaluated. By 2009, it had been determined that SIEE was not significantly improving the situation.

Seymour “Sy” Garte, Ph.D., director of the Division of Physiological and Pathological Science at CSR and a former environmental health researcher himself, reported to Council on the results of his study of the situation and more recent actions put in place to address it. The SIEE has been eliminated, and now four study sections have been identified as targets for toxicology and EHS applications:

Garte noted that new CSR guidelines specifically include toxicology, and that reviewers and chairs with toxicology and EHS experience have been recruited to sit on the targeted study sections. He presented data that showed that since those changes have been made, toxicological and EHS applications reviewed by the targeted study sections have been scored more favorably. In the future, he said, there are plans to increase the flow of toxicology and EHS applications to the targeted study sections, to continue to recruit expert reviewers for those study sections, to consider additional or different target study sections, and perhaps even to revisit the concept of an SEP devoted to EHS.

Garte added that the new acting director of CSR, Richard Nakamura, Ph.D., has indicated he is open to hearing new ideas and input from the EHS community. Garte encouraged members of the community to communicate their thoughts with Nakamura and CSR at this time.

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