The 15th annual NIEHS Science Days, a celebration of scientific research across the institute, featured a minisymposium on how prenatal and early life exposures contribute to diseases later in life. This is also known as developmental origins of health and disease.
The Nov. 2-3 symposium highlighted all facets of NIEHS scientific research, with presentations from researchers in the Divisions of Intramural Research and National Toxicology Program (NTP), as well as a Division of Extramural Research and Training grantee, and former NIEHS trainee.
Eight oral presentations by fellows, students, and technicians, and two poster sessions featuring more than 90 posters, rounded out the activities. New this year were presentations from the four recipients of the Division of Intramural Research Innovation Research Award.
In opening remarks, Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and NTP, noted the growing participation of scientists throughout NIEHS over the last six years since the event moved to a two-day format. Awards were then given out for the best trainee talk and poster, and mentor and trainee of the year (see related story).
Joel Abramowitz, Ph.D., special assistant to the NIEHS Scientific Director, was the lead organizer of the event.
Developmental origins of health and disease
Kelly Ferguson, Ph.D., lead researcher in the Perinatal and Early Life Epidemiology Group, discussed her study of exposures that may affect birth outcomes, including gender-specific impacts. She is particularly interested in factors that circulate within the blood, such as reactive oxygen species.
Rebecca Fry, Ph.D., a grantee from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discussed her research on the placenta, which she described as a temporary organ. Fry studies epigenetic changes, or changes to DNA that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence, in the placenta that may affect disease later in life.
Vickie Walker, health scientist in the NTP Office of Health Assessment and Translation, presented evidence of health effects that are passed from generation to generation. This research will be essential in understanding the impact of their children of exposures their parents experienced.
Genetic components of addiction
Former NIEHS trainee Dana Hancock, Ph.D., now a senior genetic epidemiologist at RTI International, returned to discuss her current work. "I was incredibly honored to be invited back," Hancock said. "I still collaborate with my postdoc mentor." She added that part of her current research is similar to the pulmonary function research she conducted at NIEHS.
At RTI, Hancock uses human genomic data and assessments of smoking behaviors to identify DNA regions that may be related to addictive behaviors. Her recent research is looking at changes in mRNA concentrations. Hancock said studying these changes will help to identify molecular processes that may lead to these behaviors. Together, these results help provide a full view of the genetic factors that may contribute to smoking behaviors and addiction.
(Cody Nichols, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research Training Award fellow in the NIEHS Genetics, Environment, and Respiratory Disease Group.)