The National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council enthusiastically supported a global environmental health (GEH) initiative at its meeting June 4-5. The initiative will support new collaborative research projects in Brazil, China, and India. It includes joining existing projects with other National Institutes of Health (NIH) institutes and centers.
The GEH initiative was presented by Division of Extramural Research and Training Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D. “These new opportunities will help to solidify our place … as leaders in global environmental health,” she said.
The new global initiatives will expand existing grant opportunities from various parts of NIH by including collaborative research relevant to environmental health. Scientists involved in the international collaborations will be supported by their host country. The competition and funding will be coordinated through NIH.
“The scope … will include exposure measurements, disease risks, interventions, and prevention research that will increase the knowledge and capacity in these countries to manage devastating problems,” Collman said.
“I think that it is needed, and the soon the better,” said Jose Manautou, Ph.D., from the University of Connecticut.
Strengthening global relationships
Brad Racette, M.D., from Washington University in St. Louis, emphasized the importance of personal contacts in international work. “This is all about relationships,” he said. “So I would encourage you to think broadly about how you can create opportunities to develop those relationships.”
NIEHS has long managed its own Global Environmental Health group under the leadership of John Balbus, M.D. (see related story). He updated the council on implementation of the GEH goals set forth in the 2012-2017 NIEHS Strategic Plan.
“The GEH program is a platform for translation, for awareness-raising, for facilitation and coordination,” Balbus observed. “We find opportunities to make NIEHS more effective, to help the institute fulfill its strategic vision, and to help translate the research we do into actually impacting lives in the real world.”
Among its many programs, the GEH group runs the NIEHS-WHO Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences, a partnership with the World Health Organization that began in 2013 and was renewed in 2017.
Exposure resource expands
During the meeting, NIEHS proposed a recompetition and rebranding of the Children’s Health Exposure Analysis Resource (CHEAR) program. The change would expand its scope from exposures during childhood to all life stages. CHEAR was launched in 2015 to provide the NIH grantee community access to an infrastructure for state-of-the-art biomonitoring capabilities. As the program evolves, it will become known as the Human Health Exposure Analysis Resource (HHEAR).
CHEAR Co-director David Balshaw, Ph.D., told the council that the program’s infrastructure — a coordinating center, a data center, and a laboratory network — would largely be retained. That structure will expand to include analysis of environmental samples and add a small grant program for secondary data analysis.
The council voted to approve the concept, giving Balshaw and his group a green light to continue developing the proposal, which will seek seven years of funding starting in 2019.
Fueling a new field
The council also backed an initiative to support research on the impact of environmental exposures on RNA modifications. The effort is called Functional RNA Modifications Environment and Disease, or FRAMED. It recognizes the emergence of a new field of inquiry known as epitranscriptomics.
According to NIEHS scientist Frederick Tyson, Ph.D., the impacts of the environment on chemical modifications of RNA molecules, or the epitranscriptome, in the development of adverse human health outcomes are relatively unexplored.
“With this program, we can ask a number of different questions about what exposures might be doing to RNA modifications and how they might relate to adverse health outcomes,” Tyson said.
(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)