To fully understand factors that affect human health, all stages of life should be considered, and research should be oriented toward solutions for health problems — including problems that arise only later in life. These are key lessons Matthew Gillman, M.D., has learned during a career in pediatrics that has combined primary care with research.
Gillman became the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program in July 2016. NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who invited Gillman to speak at NIEHS, chaired the NIH search committee for an ECHO director. "We were thrilled when Matt accepted the job," she said, adding that he was the perfect candidate.
Speaking at the Feb. 3 NIEHS seminar, Gillman emphasized that conditions in the womb, even those that exist before pregnancy, play a role in the later health of individuals and their offspring (see sidebar).
ECHO and NIEHS missions well-aligned
Gillman’s appreciation for solution-oriented research is rooted in his clinical experience. "Our mission is to enhance the health of children for generations to come," he said, as quoted in the journal Nature, in a Feb. 9 news article by Rachel Cernansky. ECHO will meet that far-reaching goal by providing sound scientific results suitable for use by policymakers.
"The overall scientific goal [of ECHO] is to answer crucial questions about a broad range of early environmental exposures on child health and development," Gillman explained. That goal aligns well with the NIEHS mission, so it was not surprising that several researchers in the audience expressed interest in participating.
The funds allocated by Congress are for grantees rather than in-house researchers, but Gillman pointed out other avenues for involvement. For instance, he asked NIEHS scientists to provide input on the types of data to be collected. Because all ECHO data will become publicly available, NIEHS scientists and others can use it in their own studies.
More NIEHS connections
ECHO researchers will be able to take advantage of the NIEHS Children’s Health and Exposure Analysis Resource (CHEAR). This consortium of laboratories and data facilities performs sophisticated analyses of biological samples collected by researchers, to shed light on environmental exposures.
Funded through NIEHS grants, CHEAR is overseen by David Balshaw, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Exposure, Response, and Technology Branch; and Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., head of the NEIHS Population Health Branch. The two scientists serve, along with Kimberly Gray, Ph.D., NIEHS program lead for children’s environmental health, on the overall ECHO working group.
One challenge for ECHO researchers is standardizing data collected in different studies with distinct objectives. ECHO has a unique opportunity to address this challenge, said Martha Dimes, Ph.D., children’s health editor for the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, which is published by NIEHS.
"I review many multi-cohort studies, and the researchers have to account for differences among the groups, such as the ages of participants, or the endpoints studied," she said. Though some existing cohorts are already part of ECHO, standardizing the data collected in new studies will strengthen analyses.