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Environmental Factor, October 2014

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Council meeting — from tributyltin to tribal health disparities

By Kelly Lenox

Linda Birnbaum in a Yupik dress

Birnbaum, shown in her Yupik dress, shared evidence of exposures faced by tribal communities throughout the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Collman, next to Mastin, answering a question

    Collman, right, shown with Pat Mastin, Ph.D., deputy director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, answered a question about the R35 application process. “The information in the application will be different, supporting the review of career accomplishments of the principal investigator and their relevance to the future research focus,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Latoni speaking at a podium

    Latoni shared challenges of the scientific review process. “In a time of continually evolving science, we need to align our review panels with the state of the science,” he said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Guilarte speaking into a microphone during discussions

    Council member Tomas Guilarte, Ph.D., met with the NIEHS Inflammation Faculty after the meeting concluded, to discuss potential biomarkers for inflammation (see story). (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Blumberg speaking at a podium

    “Organotins are potent activators of two nuclear receptors that are key to adipogenesis, and they do it at parts per billion levels,” Blumberg said in his talk. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Feinberg referencing materials on his laptop during the presentatiion

    Feinberg spoke up after Birnbaum’s presentation. “I love hearing about all the science,” he said. “What a great way to start.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Postlethwait and Cheung speaking with each other during a session

    Council members Edward Postlethwait, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama, and Vivian Cheung, M.D., of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, were active participants in the sessions, asking clarifying questions and injecting a little humor into the proceedings. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Waghiyi speaking at a podium

    “For 13 years, Alaska Community Action on Toxics has enabled us to do our own research, so we can improve the health and well-being of our Yupik people,” Waghiyi said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Elizabeth Yeampierre sitting with her laptop listening to the council meeting

    Addressing Birnbaum, Elizabeth Yeampierre, J.D., executive director of UPROSE, shared responses to her social media posts from the council meeting. “I want to thank you for your leadership, because it’s been noted from New York City to New Orleans to Alaska,” she said. “It’s not just symbolic — today when you were talking about food deserts, the language you spoke referred directly to the experience we’re having.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The 142nd meeting of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council kept a brisk pace, covering topics ranging from the fiscal year 2015 budget and a new grant mechanism, to addressing tribal health disparities. The Sept. 9-10 meeting also featured science talks on connections between manufacture of artificial butter flavoring and lung disease, and the transgenerational obesogenic effects of tributyltin (see sidebar and text box).

Scientific advances and community connections

Opening the meeting, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., reviewed legislative activities, and shared key scientific publications, highlighting cross-divisional collaboration. “Our term, one NIEHS, refers to the interactive nature of our science program, with scientists in different divisions working together,” Birnbaum told council members.

She also noted the National Academy of Sciences validation of two recent NTP listing decisions in the 12th Report on Carcinogens (see related story). Other news included two new environmental health core centers, at Wayne State University and Texas A&M University. Birnbaum also addressed prospects for the fiscal year 2015 budget, saying that a continuing resolution, with funding through mid-December, appears likely.

Council member Andrew Feinberg, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University, observed how often NIEHS-funded research relates to issues in the geographic area of the grantee institution. “It’s very important to make sure that, at the local level, people know that NIEHS is supporting these programs,” he said.

“I give Dr. Collins a great deal of credit for getting the word out that biomedical research is an engine of innovation and change, and great for local economies,” Birnbaum responded.

Genomic data sharing and innovative grant design

Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, focused her presentation on two new NIH developments.

A new genomic data sharing policy will make data collected during NIH-funded research available to other researchers. Detailed information on the new policy is posted on the Genomic Data Sharing website.

A new grant mechanism has been introduced that will provide sustained and flexible support to experienced investigators who have outstanding records of research productivity. Collman explained that the R35 grant mechanism will give researchers more freedom to break new ground or extend previous discoveries in new directions.

Collman closed by reviewing research activities tied to the NIEHS strategic plan, including targeted research programs, workshops, and other activities that promote the exchange of ideas and scientific findings.

Budget process and scientific peer review

Two members of the NIEHS Office of Management, Laurie Johnson, head of the Financial Management Branch, and Scott Redman, deputy budget director, clarified the budget process, from development within the institute through Congressional appropriation.

Alfonso Latoni, Ph.D., chief of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training Scientific Review Branch, outlined the process for review of grant applications and contract proposals.

Environmental health disparities in tribal communities

Donning a traditional dress of the Yupik residents of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, where she held community forums this summer (see story), Birnbaum underscored the NIEHS concern over the contribution of the environment to health disparities, consistent with Goal 6 of the NIEHS strategic plan. She provided specific examples of these disparities, gleaned from her trip last year to the Navajo Nation, and research talks given at a grantees’ meeting in June at Salish Kootenai College in Montana.

Birnbaum described environmental health threats faced by the Alaska tribal communities she visited and shared the outcome of meetings with regional health care providers. “In Anchorage, health care providers responded positively to our message of threats [tribal communities] face from environmental exposures,” said Birnbaum. “And in Nome, [public health officials] agreed to send a team of health care providers to St. Lawrence Island.”

Council member Vi Waghiyi shared the community-based research done by the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, helping to address the unique environmental exposures in the far north. “We have a cancer crisis,” Waghiyi said, elaborating on efforts to get assistance in resolving health disparities. “It was an honor to have Dr. Birnbaum visit. It’s hard to get health care providers to recognize the health impacts we’re seeing,” she said.

Tributyltin — early life obesogen?

Bruce Blumberg, Ph.D., professor of developmental and cell biology at the University of California, Irvine, spoke to the council about his work on environmental chemicals that may contribute to obesity, or obesogens, particularly tributyltin. Blumberg argued that changes in the balance between exercise and food intake are not adequate to explain the obesity epidemic.

Blumberg’s research is concerned with endocrine-disrupting chemicals and how they might contribute to lifelong obesity, and whether effects may be heritable. His early work on nuclear hormone receptors led to an interest in in these chemicals. Two receptors in particular appear to play a role in the development of obesity.

His group has been particularly interested in organotins, especially tributyltin, because it is well accepted as an endocrine disruptor. After determining that tributyltin causes a number of effects that would lead to adipogenesis, or fat cell formation, they turned to looking at the effects of early life exposure.

They found an increased number of fat cells, larger fat cells, and increased expression of relevant genes for up to three generations in mice exposed prenatally to tributyltin.

Blumberg’s group is now conducting further analyses, seeking to identify epigenetic effects that may be responsible for this transgenerational effect. “The bottom line message is that the existence of such things as obesogens strongly shifts the paradigm. We have to go for prevention,” Blumberg said.

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