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DOD and NIEHS Discuss Environmental Sensors

By Robin Mackar
May 2009

A photograph of David Balshaw.
Balshaw's Council report may have set the stage for a creative interchange among researchers with different scientific backgrounds and different funding sources. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A photograph of Michael Macinski.
Macinski's military perspective on exposure biology may lead to expanded partnerships between NIEHS and DOD that have the potential to save money for both agencies while improving both of their programs. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

During a daylong discussion on April 21, representatives from NIEHS and Department of Defense (DOD) found that they had more in common than they thought, especially when it comes to a mutual interest in developing sensors that detect chemicals and other potentially harmful agents in the environment.

Program administrators from the Division of Extramural Research and Training Program (DERT) including David Balshaw, Ph.D., Daniel Shaughnessy, Ph.D., Jerry Heindel, Ph.D., Elizabeth Maull, Ph.D., and Interim DERT Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., as well as NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., informally shared information with DOD science staff about different research areas within the NIEHS portfolio. Representing DOD were Craig Postlewaite, D.V.M., M.P.H, from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, Reed Hoyt Ph.D., from the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and Dave Jackson. Ph.D., from the US Army Center for the Environmental Health Research.

NIEHS staff gave presentations about the progress being made in the Genes, Environment and Health Initiative (GEI), the Small Business and Innovation Research (SBIR) program, and the NIH Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats (CounterACT) Research Network. In turn, the guests presented their own organizations' efforts in the environmental sensor arena including the role of DOD in protecting the health of its forces, updates on exposure biomarker discoveries and some real examples of promising detector technologies such as nanoscale sensors.

“Clearly, you are all doing a lot of things we are interested in, and we are very glad to be starting this dialogue with you,” said Postlewaite. He also stressed the breadth of the DOD organization and acknowledged what was being presented was a small sampling of the DOD portfolio in this area.

A number of factors brought the agencies together, including a comment made by a council member at the recent National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council meeting. Ex-officio member, CPT Michael J. Macinski, Director of Public Health, MSC, USN Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center, who serves as the DOD representative on the Council, was impressed with the Exposure Biology update provided by Balshaw at the February meeting and suggested NIEHS get together with DOD to exchange information. Another key factor was the message articulated by Birnbaum to promote new and renewed relationships with other government agencies, universities, advocates, sister institutes and centers at NIH, and the general public. A third contributing factor was a recent SBIR announcement ( that highlighted the special topics of interest to NIEHS.

“We couldn't have written that SBIR better ourselves,” said Postlewaite “It's like it was written by and for us. Reading that announcement made me realize we both want the same thing — tools and biomarkers that will let us know what people are being exposed to, so we can find ways to prevent or protect them the best way we can.”

In his presentation, Postlewaite emphasized the comprehensive health surveillance system that has been put in place since the Gulf War to capture a wide array of health information on each soldier from pre- to post-discharge. Shaughnessy asked about the wealth of data in the DOD system for NIEHS grantees. “If researchers have a good hypothesis and want to access our samples, we can work with you to accomplish that,” Postlewaite added. He noted that there were are more than 46 million samples in the system and over 11,000 air, water and soil samples from Iraq and Afghanistan.

He stressed that the Department is genuinely interested in protecting military personnel and knowing more about environmental exposure. “Ideally, we'd like to work toward the gold standard of being able to put a small lapel pin on each soldier that can detect exposure to all chemicals.”

Balshaw said there are a wide range of technologies out there, but none yet that can detect more than a few chemicals or chemical classes at one time.

During their remarks, both Birnbaum and Collman thanked the DOD representatives for taking the time to come to North Carolina and share what DOD is doing in the biomarker and sensor development arena. “We see opportunities for collaboration,” Birnbaum noted.

Collman and others remarked that there is a long way to go before these devices are readily used in population settings. “We need to identify markets and venues for these products so companies will continue to invest in their development. It's not enough for them to just be used in NIH-funded studies.”

(Robin Mackar is the News Director in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

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