The National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council met Oct. 3 and approved further development of a new version of the Virtual Consortium for Translational-Transdisciplinary Environmental Research (ViCTER) program. The reboot, called ViCTER 2.0, is designed to stimulate interest in transdisciplinary and translational collaborations (see sidebar).
According to presenter Jonathan Hollander, Ph.D., 34 awards have been made since the program began in 2010, although applications have declined in recent years. ViCTER supports virtual consortia that connect a lead environmental health researcher with two new collaborators. The new version of ViCTER will retain that format, with several proposed changes.
- Increase individual award amounts.
- Expand the time frame for project support.
- No longer require the lead researcher to have an active individual research grant, known as an R01, from NIEHS.
These changes respond to feedback from grantees and are expected to lead to more applications. “This is a major, major improvement that is likely to be very impactful,” said council member Maureen Litchtveld, M.D., from Tulane University.
Strategic plan progressing
Development of a new NIEHS strategic plan was launched at the June council meeting. Sheila Newton, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation (OPPE), shared her office’s analysis of the 219 responses received from an online survey, including the highlights below.
- Strong support for understanding environmental health contributions to children’s health, healthy aging, and health disparities.
- Mission relevance of understanding emerging environmental health issues.
- Need for research results to be actionable in the real world.
- Strong support for the NIEHS role in sharing information and public engagement, and promoting environmental health literacy.
- Recognition that NIEHS has not yet tapped the full potential of so-called big data and data sharing for environmental health science.
- Strong support for training the research workforce.
Council members noted that NIEHS can consolidate some of the 11 goals outlined in the current plan as it incorporates new areas of focus. Continuous evaluation and measurement of NIEHS accomplishments remain important.
Small business program is thriving
Daniel Shaughnessy, Ph.D., updated the council on Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs. These grants help fund development and commercialization of products and services that support environmental health science efforts.
Examples of projects include SeaTox Research Inc. in Wilmington, North Carolina, which is developing user-friendly, fluorescence-based assays for marine toxins. These assays will improve exposure assessments and protect the public.
A new area of focus, according to Shaughnessy, is development of 3-D culture models that use cells derived from animals typically used in toxicity testing. “The thinking here is that if we could compare the in vitro results to an existing in vivo database, it would increase our confidence that the 3-D assays are actually reporting on relevant endpoints for toxicity testing,” he said.
“The ultimate goal is to reduce animal testing, so in initial drug or compound development, you could run compounds through an in vitro model without having to take them into animals.”
Hurricane Irma accommodated
Due to the approach of Hurricane Irma during the original September council date, NIEHS set up a virtual meeting using web video technology.
Although participants agreed it was preferable to meet in person, the meeting format worked well and provided an efficient alternative.
(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)