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Environmental Factor, November 2015

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Burr gets an inside look at NIEHS

By Kelly Lenox

Richard Burr

The discussion during Burr’s visit took note of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “Environmental factors are more readily identified and modified than genetic factors, and therefore present a tremendous opportunity to prevent breast cancer and other noncommunicable diseases,” Birnbaum told the senator. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Richard Burr and Stravros Garantziotis

At the CRU, Burr, left, learned about NIEHS clinical research studies from respiratory therapist Wayne Hughes, center, and Garantziotis. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Richard Burr, U.S. senator for North Carolina, paid a visit Oct. 15 to NIEHS. He got a firsthand look at the institute, touring the facility and taking time to talk with NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and other members of the NIEHS leadership team.

In February, Birnbaum briefed the senator and his staff on Capitol Hill, but this was his first visit to the institute’s campus in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. “We were eager to show him how investment in biomedical research pays off in jobs and decreased health care costs,” Birnbaum said.

“NIEHS research spans the range from basic biology, where we look at the mechanisms of how a disease like cancer is initiated or progresses, to applied toxicology and human epidemiology,” Birnbaum told the senator. “NIEHS is unique at the NIH, because we are the only one whose research has a primary focus on preventing disease, rather than diagnosing and treating it.”

Innovation and partnerships

Throughout his visit, Burr displayed keen interest in the range of research, training, education, and other work conducted at the institute.

“The senator seemed to be particularly interested in knowing how the government can promote innovation in technology and healthcare,” said Rick Woychik, Ph.D., deputy director of NIEHS, “especially when researchers in university laboratories, like those funded by NIEHS, engage in collaborative ventures with scientists in the private sector.” 

“He was really interested in our partnerships with local universities, both through the Clinical Research Unit, as well as our grants,” agreed Mark Miller, Ph.D., who serves as Birnbaum’s chief of staff.

According to Miller, Burr was impressed with the activities of the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity, including its support of students and teachers through programs such as Scholars Connect and the two-week Science, Teachers, and Research Summer (STaRS) Institute.

During Birnbaum’s presentation, Burr received updates on other topics he is actively involved with, including past drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune and Agent Orange exposures.

Focus on Clinical Research Unit

Staff members at the NIEHS Clinical Research Unit (CRU) highlighted their interactions with the public and their efforts to recruit individuals from the local area to participate in biomedical research. Discussions touched on the CRU’s range of contributions, from studies at the individual level, to insights gained into the underlying principles of biology and their impacts on the nation’s broader public health.

Stavros Garantziotis, M.D., acting head of the Clinical Research Branch, showed Burr around the CRU. “We talked about the Environmental Polymorphisms Registry, the Natural History of Asthma with Longitudinal Environmental Sampling (NHALES) study, research on engineered nanomaterials, and the work of our new recruit Dr. Natalie Shaw, suggesting that altered sleep patterns may affect the onset of puberty,” said Garantziotis.

Miller emphasized the advantages of the personal meeting and the information that was exchanged. “NIEHS doesn’t set policy,” he observed, “but when we can inform our representatives and senators about the science that we do, they’re better able to use that research to support the policy decisions that come before them.”

“I really enjoyed my visit today, and it’s been great to learn more about the institute’s work,” said Burr.  “I’d like to come back soon to meet with NIEHS staff in a town hall format, so that everyone here has a chance to ask me questions.”

Burr,Miller,Birnbaum and Flowers

From left, Burr toured the NIEHS research labs, getting a firsthand view of the range of NIEHS research and other programs with Miller, Birnbaum, and Christine Flowers, director of the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison. “We have a commitment to conducting outreach, education, training, and supporting community partnerships, in addition to the highest quality, most rigorous laboratory-based science,” Birnbaum said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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