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Extramural Update

Grant Awards Made for the Genes, Environment and Health Initiative

Exposure Biology

The National Institutes of Health awarded its first research grants this summer as part of the Genes, Environment and Health Initiative (GEI), a four-year, trans-NIH program that seeks to improve understanding of both the genetic and environmental contributions to complex diseases.

The GEI has two components: an Exposure Biology Program led by NIEHS in partnership with NCI, NHLBI and NIDA for the development of small, portable sensor devices and novel technology to enable more precise measurements of chemical and lifestyle exposures and for the discovery and improved detection of early indicators of biological responses to environmental stressors, and a genetics program led by NHGRI to identify genetic variants in common diseases through genome-wide association studies.

The Exposure Biology Program seeks to improve the understanding of how environmental exposures affect disease risk through the development of tools for improved exposure assessment and more robust measures of biological responses to exposure. In the Environmental Sensors for Personal Exposure Assessment initiative (ES-06-011), researchers will develop field-deployable, wearable devices that can detect exposures to household allergens, gasoline and diesel compounds, fine and ultra-fine particles, and other air pollution components in real-time. Approaches include a color-based sensor array that can detect a wide range of volatile toxicants, personal nasal samplers that can detect inhaled allergens, and an enzymatic activity-based sensor that can detect pesticides, ozone, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals.

The Improved Measures of Diet and Physical Activity initiative (CA-07-032) will develop tools for accurate measurements of diet and physical activity, including collecting detailed data on consumption of food, beverages and dietary supplements with food records, 24-hour dietary recalls and direct measurements of physical activity using heart rate monitoring and motion sensors. Among the approaches being developed are Web-based multimedia tools for reporting dietary intake among children, a mobile telephone food record coupled with image processing software to estimate nutrient intake and an accelerometer-enabled cell phone with GPS capability that can transmit physical activity data in real time.

A third initiative, Field-Deployable Tools for Quantifying Exposures to Psychosocial Stress and Addictive Substances (DA-07-005) supports the development of tools that can detect and quantify personal exposure to such psychosocial stressors as crowding or isolation, discrimination, traumatic events, loss of job, family violence, deprivation, or adverse social environments and to exposure to addictive substances such as nicotine, alcohol, cannabis, stimulants and opiates.

The Biological Response Indicators of Environmental Stress initiatives (ES-06-012 and ES-06-013) will promote the development of robust biomarkers or signatures that reflect changes in biological pathways following exposure to environmental stressors. These biomarkers reflect changes in key pathways, such as inflammation, oxidative stress, DNA damage, endocrine disruption and epigenetic regulation, which are known to be influenced by environmental stressors. Examples of the research approaches include identifying protein biomarkers of exposure to pesticides and tobacco smoke, gene-expression markers of airway response to tobacco smoke, and genomic and metabolomic signatures of alcohol-induced liver damage.

The research projects in the Exposure Biology Program will develop tools for more precise measures of exposure and response that will begin to pave the way toward the overarching goal of the GEI initiative of understanding the interaction between genetic and environmental factors that contribute to disease.

Studies within the genetics component of the GEI will identify genetic differences between cases and controls in common diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and lung cancer. Applications for additional genetics studies were recently solicited (HG-07-012). Two genotyping facilities, at the Broad Institute in Cambridge Massachusetts and at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, have been funded, as well as a coordinating center at the University of Washington in Seattle. Another initiative (HL-07-010) has recently funded projects to develop improved methods for analyzing gene-environment interactions in complex diseases.

For more information on the GEI program

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