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Environmental Factor, January 2013

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Environmental Polymorphisms Registry gets new leader

By Robin Arnette

Shepherd Schurman, M.D.

Schurman is a native of Chicago, Ill., and takes over the position of EPR director from Patricia Chulada, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Since its opening in 2009, the NIEHS Clinical Research Unit (CRU) has steadily expanded the number of research projects and numbers of staff who help facilitate the work. In early October 2012, the CRU welcomed its newest member, Shepherd Schurman, M.D., to the fold. Schurman comes to NIEHS from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and now serves as the CRU’s staff clinician and head of the Environmental Polymorphisms Registry (EPR).

From the time he was 4 years old, Schurman said he knew he wanted to become a physician-scientist. Both of his parents were fascinated with science and had relatives who were physicians, so they fostered his interest in medicine and genetics. After completing medical school and a residency in internal medicine, he joined the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) as a research fellow, studying gene therapy and immune deficiency disorders. After moving to NIA, he started working with DNA repair and polymorphisms, or gene differences, associated with age-related diseases.

“When the position of staff clinician came open here, I thought it was a great opportunity,” Schurman said. “I believed it would be a pretty good fit, given my background in genetics, clinical trials, and polymorphisms research.”

Darryl Zeldin, M.D., the NIEHS Scientific Director, hired Schurman for the job. He said, “I am confident that Dr. Schurman will exceed our already high expectations in leading the next phase of the EPR.”

Heading the EPR

The CRU is a 14,000 square foot facility on the NIEHS campus that conducts studies to determine how environmental exposures influence disease. The EPR, which is one of several ongoing studies at the CRU, provides access to DNA from more than 17,000 individuals from the North Carolina Triangle region. Participants with polymorphisms of interest may be invited to join follow-up studies that allow researchers to perform basic laboratory experiments, such as cell phenotyping from donated blood, or be asked to participate in more comprehensive clinical-based research. With the addition of the EPR’s health and exposure survey, an individual's susceptibility to common conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other illnesses can be associated with investigated polymorphisms.

According to Schurman, the EPR fits nicely within the framework of the new NIEHS strategic plan, because of its focus on translational research. As examples, he mentioned EPR’s adherence to goal 1, which seeks to identify mechanisms behind complex disease, and goal 2, which aims to understand individual susceptibility to disease resulting from environmental factors. He also pointed out that the third theme in the strategic plan, translational science, describes perfectly just what the EPR is doing.

“The key passage from that section is ‘Environmental health translational research can introduce, into medical decision-making, a new level of information about gene-environment interaction affecting drugs, biologics, infections, and other environmental factors in health and disease,’” he said. “The EPR can be a valuable resource to both intramural and extramural researchers.”

As medical director of the CRU, Stavros Garantziotis, M.D., knows that the only way for the EPR to maximize its potential is to get many more researchers to initiate studies using its DNA. Recruiting scientists to mine the EPR’s genetic information will be a challenge Garantziotis feels Schurman is ready to meet.

“Dr. Schurman is very well qualified for this role, having worked for many years at the NIA with the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, as well as having collaborated in the earliest gene treatment trials at the NHGRI,” Garantziotis said. “He thus brings a great amalgam of skills and experiences that will enable him to lead the EPR to a new phase, and help us gain new insights into the interaction of genes and the environment in the development of disease.”

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