From patterns of environmental exposures hidden in baby teeth, to unraveling the nucleus of a cell as the next step in genomic research, visionary science was featured throughout the Feb. 12 National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council meeting.
Environmental risks for psychiatric disorders
The council endorsed two research concepts, which is a key step in developing new institute grant programs. One concept addressed environmental risks for psychiatric disorders. Building on recommendations that emerged from a March 2017 workshop at NIEHS, the proposed program would support innovative research to better understand how environmental exposures disrupt normal brain and behavioral functioning.
“There is an opportunity to inform prevention, intervention, and treatment efforts for disorders affecting a large portion of the population,” said Jonathan Hollander, Ph.D., a health scientist administrator in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT).
“This is a space where we need to be,” said council member Jose Manautou, Ph.D., from the University of Connecticut. “This program would be a strong catalyst to bring these two communities — psychiatric scientists and environmental scientists — together.”
Telomeres and exposures
Telomeres, or the caps on the ends of chromosomes that shorten each time a cell divides, were the subject of the second concept endorsed by the council. A September 2017 workshop led to the proposed program to explore telomeres as sentinels for exposures, stress, and disease susceptibility.
“The telomere has been described as a biomarker of aging, acting as the molecular gatekeeper of the cell,” said presenter Michelle Heacock, Ph.D.
She described a two-phase approach. The first involves establishing a consortium of researchers and addressing methods development. The second will focus on how the telomere is affected by environmental exposures, particularly cumulative exposures.
“I think it’s time that we understand what telomere length means,” said council member Brenda Eskenazi, Ph.D., from the University of California at Berkeley, voicing her support.
Counselors also received updates on innovative research programs at NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP). In recent years, NTP scientists have made substantial progress in learning how exposures to chemical mixtures affect human health.
“We are tackling big mixtures questions using the latest toxicology tools,” said NTP toxicologist Cynthia Rider, Ph.D., who described three study designs.
• The component-based approach focuses on individual chemicals in a mixture.
• The whole mixture approach looks at complex mixtures with no single chemical of interest.
• The systems biology approach evaluates mixtures based on how exposures affect human health outcomes.
Time and the nucleome
From characterizing the human genome and the epigenome, scientists are turning to the next frontier — the 4D nucleome. This program, spearheaded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Common Fund, explores how DNA interacts with itself and various structures in the nucleus, as well as the role of time.
Researchers study the role nuclear organization plays in gene expression and cellular function, as well as how changes in nuclear organization affect human development and disease.
“I think in the future we’ll see our investigator community looking at how environmental chemicals impact this process of nuclear organization,” said NIEHS scientist Lisa Chadwick, Ph.D., 4D Nucleome program director.
Reaching Out to All of Us
Another NIH initiative presented was the All of Us Research Program, a massive NIH effort to gather data from one million people to spur development of precision medicine. Director Eric Dishman shared his moving personal story of surviving cancer thanks to precision medicine. Via video link, he shared an overview of the program.
To promote representation of environmental health in the program’s protocols, NIEHS liaison Janet Hall, M.D., urged everyone to contribute ideas online, in advance of the All of Us Research Priorities workshop scheduled for March 21-23, 2018 (see related story).
(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)