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Advisory Council Hears NIEHS Updates and New Concepts

By Eddy Ball
March 2007

the Council seated at a table
In a configuration not often seen in Rodbell Conference Center, the Council sat around a group of tables placed in the center of the auditorium with attendees seated on both sides. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

David Schwartz and Dennis Lang
During the meeting, Council Chair David Schwartz, M.D., center, was flanked at the head of the table by DERT Acting Director Dennis Lang, Ph.D., left, and Deputy Director Sam Wilson, M.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Hunt Willard
Duke Geneticist Hunt Willard, Ph.D., addressed a major theme in currently funded research with his lecture on epigenetics. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Perry Blackshear
During his report on DIR accomplishments, Acting Scientific Director Perry Blackshear, M.D., twice asked council members to encourage their friends and relatives to apply for his job. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council convened on February 15 in Rodbell Auditorium for a daylong session of reports on NIEHS programs and initiatives. In addition to its usual business, Council voted unanimously to approve Concept Clearance for two new funding mechanisms and heard reports on new developments in global environmental health (GEH) and translational research. The advisors also received an update on extramural research on endocrine disruptors.

NIEHS Associate Director and Director, Office of Translational Research (OTR), Bill Martin, M.D., opened his portion of the meeting with a report on "The Mandate for Effective Translational Medicine and the Special Challenges for Environmental Health Sciences." Martin explained that at many NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs), researchers tend to focus on outcomes of new therapeutics or diagnostics for a well-defined subset of diseases. The research focus at NIEHS, however, is usually more related to development of tools and discoveries to impact public health policy and prevention.

As a result, OTR has proposed a modified version of the NIH definition of translational research. According to this definition, Martin explained, "Translational research transforms scientific discoveries arising from laboratory, clinical or population studies into clinical or population-based applications to improve health by reducing disease incidence, morbidity and mortality."

To facilitate translational research at NIEHS, OTR set several objectives for its Office of Technology Transfer (see related Spotlight story) and proposed a new funding mechanism for Concept Clearance. Known as K18, the mechanism would complement existing investigator recruitment efforts by establishing a program of short-term, three-month to one-year, mentored career development awards for established physician-scientists and environmental health basic science investigators.

The program will encourage interdisciplinary research and divergent thinking by immersing researchers in collaborative environments to stimulate a healthy interplay of perspectives. Clinicians who have received funding from the more traditional ICs will bring their bedside orientation to laboratory-based environmental health research. In turn, environmental health basic science researchers will find out what it means to work in a disease-oriented translational program.

In Martin's second report, he told Council members about the NIEHS Global Environment Health Conference held January 10-13 in San Francisco. The conference engaged 45 leading environmental health experts from around the world in an intense work-group exercise to address diseases linked to environmental factors.

Conference organizers charged the work groups with identifying diseases and approaches for research and intervention. Participants also had to pinpoint barriers as well as ways of connecting NIEHS/NIH funded researchers with communities and researchers in the developing world and suggest public and public-private partnerships. By the end of the workshop, the experts had produced white papers listing and rank-ordering research topics and proposed next steps. These reports will serve as an action plan for improving environmental health worldwide.

In another report to the Council, Health Science Administrator Jerry Heindel, Ph.D., surveyed the successes and challenges of extramural research on the human health effects of phthalates and bisphenol A. Endocrine disruptors are the subjects of ongoing controversy among scientists. Even within the Institute, scientists strongly disagree about the health threats these compounds may actually pose. Council Member Dan Liebler, Ph.D., expressed concern that the research so far has produced little in the way of definitive findings.

Following the Council's closed session to consider grant applications, Program Administrator David Balshaw, Ph.D., presented another concept for clearance - a new extramural grant mechanism called "Fusion." Balshaw described Fusion as a funding strategy to enhance "transformative research in the environmental health sciences." He explained that the proposed mechanism would foster a level of interdisciplinary synergy capable of producing "paradigm shifts" by encoding collaboration into a special RO1 grant mechanism.

Balshaw said that paradigm shifts occur when science and imagination converge, often by accident, to see phenomena in surprisingly new and unconventional ways. According to Balshaw, the Fusion program will encourage this kind of transformational research by using a new Multiple Principal Investigator (PI) RO1 grant mechanism to include at least two PIs from distinctly different disciplines in a single project funded over a five-year period. Because the investigators will see their common goal from different disciplinary perspectives, Fusion grants will encourage animated dialogue across disciplines and lead to a more creative, non-traditional approach to problem solving.

When Council approves Concept of Clearance, proposals enter a "holding pattern," a period when they are contingent upon funding and subject to reassessment at upcoming Council meetings. Implementation begins only after further review.

Council Firsts

February's meeting introduced several new elements into the format of Council meetings. Council, for the first time, conducted its review in a full-day session, instead of the customary day-and-a-half session. NIEHS Director David Schwartz, M.D., indicated that future meetings will likely follow the new format as well.

The February meeting also was the first time that some members were able to telecommute to the Council meeting. Because of a rash of airport closings in the northeastern United States, members from New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. attended the meeting by phone and viewed presentations through video feeds, unintentionally putting DERT's paperless initiative to its first test before the Council.

Finally, the advisors heard a presentation on the potential of epigenetic research by Hunt Willard, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy at Duke University and Vice Chancellor for Genome Sciences at Duke University Medical Center. Willard's talk was the first scientific lecture in what will become a series that the Council will hear in upcoming meetings.



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