On June 12, the scientific directors of NIEHS and the National Institute of Aging (NIA) announced three unique joint research projects to enhance the collaborations between in-house, or intramural, researchers at the two organizations. The program provides three postdoctoral fellowships for two years of work in the collaborations.
"Many investigators at NIEHS have an interest in aging research, and many investigators at NIA have an interest in understanding the role of the environment in the aging process," explained NIEHS Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D.
"This is really a win-win situation, where investigators at two of NIH's [National Institutes of Health] off-Bethesda campuses can collaborate to answer innovative, cutting-edge questions in these areas,” he said.
In their announcement, Zeldin and NIA Scientific Director Luigi Ferrucci, M.D., Ph.D., , explained that by uniting multidisciplinary researchers who have nonoverlapping, complementary skill sets, both organizations would benefit from more effective problem-solving. The scientists will focus on challenging research questions, with the fellows bridging the gap between the two institutes.
“More and more we are becoming aware that science cannot be caged into a specific label or specialty, and we should as much as possible encourage collaborations between different fields,” Ferrucci said. “Conceptually this … should involve all fields. A collaboration between NIH institutes is a good start.
"The unique thing about this fellowship is that each postdoctoral fellow will be working with lead researchers in both institutes, traveling back and forth to carry out their research, and interacting with people at the two different institutions," said Joel Abramowitz, Ph.D., NIEHS special assistant to the scientific director.
The fellows will receive a stipend along with travel assistance to facilitate their interactions between NIA in Maryland and NIEHS in North Carolina. The fellowships include the potential for extension.
Intersection between environment and aging
Scientists from both organizations submitted research proposals to the Scientific Directors' Advisory Committee, which included reviewers from both NIA and NIEHS. The top three proposals were selected based on merit and scientific relevance to the intersection between environment and its impact on healthcare outcomes in aging.
The winning proposals address the following topics.
- How exposure to tobacco smoke promotes the aging of immature stem cells in newborns and adults.
- The effects of mutated enzymes responsible for unwinding DNA in young adults who have a rare, inflammatory autoimmune skin condition called juvenile dermatomyositis.
- The impact of a fungicide on the development and progression of Parkinson's disease.
"There is good evidence to suggest that diseases associated with human aging are the end results of complex gene-by-environment interactions," noted Madhav Thambisetty, M.D., Ph.D. As a clinical researcher at NIA, Thambisetty was one of proposal reviewers.
"Studying how complex diseases in older individuals may eventually manifest as the outcomes of decades of exposure to adverse environmental factors will help us not only understand the biological bases of these diseases, but also to develop effective treatments," he said.
Depending on the end results, these research projects could lead to additional collaborations between NIA and NIEHS, as well as new cross-functional relationships between other government organizations.
(Frieda Wiley, Pharm.D., is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)