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Environmental Factor, January 2013

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NIEHS Partners gather in Friendship Heights

By Eddy Ball

Partner Nsedu Obot Witherspoon

Partner Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, right, took advantage of the informal setting, to air concerns about the effects of environmental exposures on children’s development. Witherspoon is a former NIEHS council member and the executive director of the Children's Environmental Health Network. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Birnbaum, right, made a point that low-dose exposures to hormone-like chemicals, at certain stages of development, can potentially be very harmful. Schug, left, spoke about NIEHS grants for endocrine-disruption research. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

The annual NIEHS Partners meeting Dec. 14, 2012, in Friendship Heights, Md., featured the lively discussion participants have come to expect in this casual roundtable venue. Along with the welcome opportunity to talk personally with NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., this year’s gathering also featured an informal symposium on One-NIEHS endocrine disruption research, by representatives of the Institute’s three research divisions.

The purpose of these meetings with the NIEHS Partners is to seek input and improve communication with communities and organizations directly affected by the mission and research of NIEHS. The membership represents diverse groups, including disease, disability, and environmental education and advocacy organizations. The group lends grassroots perspectives to the research agenda of NIEHS, while serving as a key contributor to the translation of research findings to the public, policy makers, and private foundations.

Research divisions collaborate on endocrine research

Birnbaum, who obviously enjoys the camaraderie of the Partners, opened the meeting with a sincere expression of her appreciation of their input. “You all are a really terrific group,” she told the 15 attendees, as participants prepared to introduce themselves and enjoy 2 1/2 hours of open discussion over lunch. The final two hours of the meeting were devoted to presentations by lead researcher Ken Korach, Ph.D., of the Division of Intramural Research; lead researcher Sue Fenton, Ph.D., of the Division of the National Toxicology Program; and health scientist Thaddeus Schug, Ph.D., of the Division of Extramural Research and Training.

Along with Birnbaum, whose interest in endocrine disruption, and the atypical dose-response patterns to hormone-like chemicals, has inspired several of her recent talks, Korach, Fenton, and Schug described the Institute’s integrated research strategy to better understand the public health impact of exposure.

As the speakers explained, endocrine-disrupting compounds can affect human health from preconception to old age, with especially significant impacts during developmental windows of susceptibility. Recent research suggests that exposures may have effects on gene expression that can manifest years and decades later, triggering a range of disease and dysfunction that may even affect offspring in subsequent generations.

Keeping a finger on the pulse of environmental health

NIEHS reaches out to the Partners in several ways, including such gatherings as the informal meeting in Friendship Heights, monthly conference calls, collections of new NIEHS-supported scientific studies, and participation by representatives at meetings of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council. Along with representatives of the research divisions, staff members from the NIEHS Bethesda, Md., office interact with the Partners. At this year’s meeting, NIEHS Legislative Liaison Mary Gant and Special Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D., were on hand to offer updates as well.

“We didn't have prepared speeches or PowerPoints. Just an open conversation around a big table,” said Special Assistant for Community Engagement and Outreach John Schelp of the Office of Science Education and Diversity, which organizes the events.

This kind of fluid agenda strikes a positive chord with the Partners. “Each year, the NIEHS shares advances in cutting edge research with the Partners, so we can help our public understand the role that environment may be playing in the disability or health condition each group represents,” said Betty Mekdeci, Partners co-chair and director of Birth Defect Research for Children. “We are also privileged to be able to ask Dr. Birnbaum any question that will further our understanding of the science.”

Partner co-chair Karen Miller, founder and president of the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition, agreed and added her own appreciation of the Institute’s cross-disciplinary approach to environmental health science. "NIEHS really brings everything together... dynamic... energizing... opposite of silos. This is the model to emulate, because every single thing is connected," she said.

The Partners group shot

The Partners joined NIEHS representatives for a photo opportunity, at the conclusion of the program. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

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