The National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council met Feb. 14-15 and approved research grant programs to move the science forward. The newly approved projects are related to the microbiome, rodent models, and genome integrity.
The microbiome and early life
The role of the microbiome, which is the collection of microbes in and on the human body, in the developmental origins of health and disease was one new project presented by the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT).
Recent studies have shown that disruption of the microbiome during the sensitive developmental window of early life can lead to later health problems such as obesity. The new program targets research exposures to environmental chemicals during pregnancy and infancy, and later consequences of these exposures on the microbiome and health outcomes.
Health Scientist Administrator Lisa Chadwick, Ph.D., pointed out that exposures are linked to disease, exposures can change the microbiome, and changes in the microbiome can cause disease. “What we want to do now is research that connects those three lines of evidence,” she said.
Council member Jose Manautou, Ph.D., from the University of Connecticut, addressed the proposal to test interventions. He suggested it may be premature to conduct such testing before interactions between the microbiome and the host environment are more clearly understood.
“I think that this is a very important area,” said council member Norbert Kaminski, Ph.D., from Michigan State University. “The literature, as it has grown in this area, is pretty convincing that the microbiome has a very important effect on human health and disease.” The council voted to support the project.
Expanding mouse model use
NIEHS has pioneered development of genetically diverse mouse models, such as Collaborative Cross and Diversity Outbred. These models have proven to be powerful tools for exploring gene-environment interactions. Health Scientist Administrator Kim McAllister, Ph.D., received council approval for her proposal to support efforts to expand their use in research on links between environmental exposures and complex human diseases.
“The overall goal of the initiative is to further stimulate the potential of these new, powerful population-based model organism resources for environmental health sciences questions, particularly the exploration of gene-environment interplay and the identification and understanding of genetic susceptibility to environmental exposures,” she explained.
A question of integrity
“The concept of genome integrity is a cornerstone of environmental health, because a variety of different chemicals and stressors directly affect DNA, which can predispose an individual to a disease,” said Health Scientist Administrator Les Reinlib, Ph.D.
The council backed the concept for a consortium program, called Extending Genome Integrity Assays to Population Studies. The program aims to improve existing genome integrity assays so they meet the needs of epidemiological studies. The new tests could lead to improved measures of risk and new treatment options.
Council in the loop
The council also was updated on several NIEHS programs. The Office of Communications and Public Liaison summarized 2016 accomplishments, including NIEHS fiftieth anniversary activities. The Office of Science Education and Diversity reported significant progress in promoting access and opportunity in NIEHS and the environmental health sciences.
NIEHS has been actively involved with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats (CounterACT) program since its inception more than a decade ago. NIEHS CounterACT program director Sri Nadadur, Ph.D., described progress in the NIH wide initiative to develop new medical countermeasures against chemical threat agents.
The four-phase initiative known as Toxicant Exposures and Responses by Genomic and Epigenomic Regulators of Transcription (TaRGET) is now in its second stage. Program Director Fred Tyson, Ph.D., reported on progress identifying epigenomic signatures in mouse tissues exposed to environmental challenges.
Gwen Collman, Ph.D., DERT director, presented a detailed analysis of DERT funding philosophies and challenges. “Our first driver for making funding decisions is to fund the highest scientific quality that we can,” she explained to the council, even in the current period of budgetary uncertainty.
(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)