New ideas in environmental health research took center stage at the Sept. 13 meeting of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council. Innovations in the field take many forms, as demonstrated by the variety of updates presented to council members.
A work in progress
Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT), reported on efforts to build an NIEHS framework for describing translational research. Although many such frameworks exist within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), none are well-suited to the work of NIEHS.
“We want to be able to clearly communicate the concept of translational research,” Collman said. “And we want to provide a storytelling tool or structure for our grantee community, our intramural program, and our National Toxicology Program [NTP] — our field in general — to think broadly about how to describe our translational activities.”
DERT requested feedback, by Oct. 30, on a document describing a draft framework. The framework captures broad categories of scientific effort, such as fundamental questions, application, practice, and health impact, and provides examples of activities that fit within each category.
“We don’t think that the translational trajectory for work in the environmental health sciences is just from a discovery to a product — there are many steps along the way,” Collman explained.
”I find this very, very useful,” said council member Dave Eaton, Ph.D., from the University of Washington. Maureen Lichtveld, M.D., from Tulane University, asked whether council members could be helpful in sharing it, for instance, with community partners. “This is to be shared broadly, so it would be outstanding if you shared it with your community partners,” Collman replied.
Fifty years of informing public health decisions
NIEHS and NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., highlighted the 50th anniversary of the institute in her presentation, especially the Nov. 1 official celebration, and the Environmental Health Science FEST event Dec. 5-8 in downtown Durham, North Carolina.
Birnbaum shared five decades of NIEHS achievements, beginning with the establishment of the institute in 1966, under a congressional mandate to engage in the conduct and support of research, training, information dissemination, and other programs related to factors in the environment that affect human health, whether directly or indirectly.
The long list of historical examples showed how NIEHS has carried out that mandate, from assessment of the impact of Agent Orange to human health impacts of climate change. Other topics included responses to the Zika virus outbreak, harmful algal blooms, and exposures to lead in drinking water in Flint, Michigan. See the interactive timeline(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/anniversary/timeline/) of NIEHS milestones for more.
NIH responds to need for a new finish line
The metrics used to evaluate biomedical research are in dire need of re-evaluation, according to Michael Lauer, M.D., NIH deputy director for extramural research, who made his presentation by video.
Although the number of grants funded has remained relatively constant, the number of applications from researchers has increased dramatically. Lauer said this suggests the need for a new finish line or a broader measure for judging research quality. He discussed ways to take citations and additional factors into account.
“What we’d like to do over the next 5 to 10 years or so is figure out ways in which we can make our work more evidence-based,” Lauer said. “Ultimately, what we’re after are transformative discoveries that will make for a better world — better public health, better health care, and better policy.”
Science talk by Carmen Williams
Councilors were treated to a well-received science talk by Carmen Williams, M.D., Ph.D., the recently tenured head of the NIEHS Reproductive Medicine Group. She described her research on how environmental exposures affect a particularly sensitive time window in early development — the period immediately following fertilization of an egg. A fertilized embryo spends its first few days in the oviduct, which is between the ovary and uterus.
“Environmental impacts can change how the oviduct works, so [they] can change the health of the embryo inside the oviduct,” Williams noted. “Environmental compounds or chemicals that are estrogenic in nature can particularly affect the oviduct, because estrogen is a major regulator of oviduct function, and when [an exposure occurs], it can hurt development of the next generation.”
Thumbs up for small business funding opportunities
In another item of business, the council unanimously approved a proposal for four new funding opportunities, presented by Daniel Shaughnessy, Ph.D., who directs the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants program. The new topics will be phased in gradually over the next six years.
- Tools for measuring exposure and responses to engineered nanomaterials.
- Organotypic animal models or three-dimensional models from animal cells that better simulate effects on complex tissues for environmental health research.
- Animal and human cell panels to incorporate genetic diversity in toxicity testing.
- Educational tools for environmental health science.
The meeting closed with the first presentation to the council by Jed Bullock, NIEHS legislative liaison. In his talk, “Wrapping up the 114th Congress,” Bullock described the varied activities he conducts out of the NIEHS office in Bethesda, Maryland. His roles extend from helping facilitate interactions between Congress and NIEHS to monitoring and analyzing legislation — including budget bills, managing responses to congressional inquiries, and serving as liaison to the advocacy group Friends of NIEHS.
(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)