Adapting quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) is opening opportunities for academic scientists to study how the environment may affect health outcomes related to the disease.
“We have been working on two COVID-19 related activities,” said Pat Mastin, Ph.D., acting director for DERT. “The first is training to protect those on the frontlines through our Worker Training Program, and the second is our research support. These are awards to rapidly provide funding for outstanding research proposals on all aspects of the virus.”
Funding at the speed of light
For new projects, the Time-Sensitive Research Grants Program provides funding in as few as 90 days after submission of a proposal.
“This is light speed for this kind of thing,” said Mastin. “The idea of the program is to support research that better understands the short- and long-term health consequences following a natural disaster or, in this case, a global pandemic,” he explained.
There also are opportunities for scientists with existing NIEHS grants. Those grants can be increased with administrative supplements. Funding for research that may be somewhat outside the scope of the existing grant can come through a mechanism called a competitive revision.
“The types of research that we are encouraging scientists to submit proposals for all fall within the bounds of the NIEHS strategic plan, which stresses a holistic approach to environmental health sciences,” said Mastin.
“For instance, we would be interested in proposals to study how responses to environmental exposures are influenced by such factors as diet, socioeconomic stress, or in this case, viral infection,” he noted. “We are also interested in funding work into how those exposures influence susceptibility to COVID-19 infection.”
Novel coronavirus, novel research
Mastin discussed other ideas that would boost understanding of how environmental factors affect health outcomes related to COVID-19.
For example, how will people’s exposure to pollution be affected by social distancing measures, such as shutting down factories and reducing air travel? Will spending more time in the house help or hurt those with environmentally induced asthma? Could weather-related factors, such as climate change, influence the spread of infection?
Another idea involves the microbiome, which is the collection of microbes, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, living on and in our bodies. It is a key intersection between the body and the environment, and one focus of the institute’s strategic plan. Mastin expressed interest in whether COVID-19 infection affects the respiratory microbiome.
He said that researchers also could explore the transcriptome, or all the genes that are expressed at a given point in time. Doing so could accelerate the identification of genetic signatures of infection or disease progression.
According to Mastin, NIEHS also seeks to fund the development of educational and community-based public health strategies related to the novel coronavirus.
(Sheena Scruggs, Ph.D., is a digital outreach coordinator in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)