The 14th annual NIEHS Science Days celebrated scientific research across the institute, organized around a minisymposium on nuclear hormone receptors.
In the spirit of One NIEHS, speakers included researchers and trainees (see text box) from the Division of Intramural Research (DIR) and the Division of the National Toxicology Program (DNTP), as well as a grantee and a former trainee who now directs her own lab. For the first time, grant experts from the Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) hosted a session dedicated to the grants process.
Scientists throughout the institute presented nearly 100 posters during the Nov. 3-4 festival. Organizers gave awards for best trainee talk and poster, and mentor and trainee of the year (see story in this issue).
Spotlight on trainees
“Science Days gives us a chance to spotlight trainees and give them opportunities to present their research in talks and posters,” said Joel Abramowitz, Ph.D., special assistant to the NIEHS Scientific Director and lead organizer of the event.
Abramowitz highlighted the new offerings from DERT grant experts. They staffed a resource room for individuals with further questions on grants and gave three talks.
- Janice Allen, Ph.D., discussed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) peer review process.
- Mike Humble, Ph.D., presented the types of NIH grants available.
- Dan Shaughnessy, Ph.D., shared details of the program officers’ work.
“We wanted to provide our trainees the same information that we share at scientific society meetings,” explained Kimberly McAllister, Ph.D., who organized the presentations.
Nuclear hormone receptors mediate environmental impacts
The theme of the science talks was nuclear hormone receptors as mediators of environmental impacts on the body. This family of transcription factors, which regulate gene expression, can be disrupted by chemicals that mimic hormones or by diseases that alter hormonal signaling, such as obesity and diabetes.
“The minisymposium really shows the breadth of NIEHS research,” said Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D. “We heard outstanding scientists talk about state-of-the-art topics and novel approaches to understanding how the environment affects our health.”
One invited speaker, Anton Jetten, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Immunity, Inflammation and Disease Laboratory (IIDL), was unable to present his talk due to illness.
Sex differences in endocrine disruptors
NIEHS grantee Heather Patisaul, Ph.D., from North Carolina State University, studies how endocrine disruptors affect the sexes differently. “We and others have reported behavioral effects of developmental BPA [bisphenol A] exposure, including elevated anxiety and exploratory behavior, and many of those effects are sexually dimorphic,” she explained.
Her team uses prairie voles because their social behavior is closer to that of humans than other animal models. Timing of exposure is important, she explained, because exposures and bodies change dramatically throughout life. In future research, Patisaul wants to further study timing and focus on the placenta as a target for the chemicals.
Endometriosis, BPA, and BPAF
NIEHS grantee and former NIEHS trainee Katie Burns, Ph.D., now at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, studies connections between endocrine disruptor exposure and endometriosis. Her recent research focuses on exposure to bisphenol AF (BPAF), a substitute for BPA used in products advertised as BPA-free.
Burns uses a mouse model of endometriosis, which she developed as an NIEHS trainee, to compare how BPA and BPAF influence endometriosis. Her findings are consistent with other researchers who have shown that BPAF is more estrogenic than BPA. That may explain her early results, which showed that BPAF increases the size of endometrial lesions. In future studies, Burns hopes to characterize the molecular processes involved.
Computational approaches speed chemical screening
“Now I’m going to take you up to the 30,000-foot view, to figure out how we tackle the fact that we are living in a sea of chemicals,” said Nicole Kleinstreuer, Ph.D., deputy director of the NTP Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods.
Computational toxicology enables scientists to study more chemicals faster, and with fewer animals, than with traditional approaches. Specifically, Kleinstreuer addressed uses for predictive models of hormone signaling pathways, especially the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of new endocrine assays. “This is the first time any regulatory agency has accepted high throughput screening data and computational model output as an alternative to an animal test,” Kleinstreuer said. “That’s pretty exciting.”