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Council meeting marks progress with initiatives

By Eddy Ball
October 2010

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
As Birnbaum turned to the budget, she said, "The answer [to exactly what our budget will be] is we really don't know. We all expect to be on a continuing resolution until after the election." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Toxicology Liaison Chris Weis, Ph.D., center
Weis, center, was one of three new members of the NIEHS leadership introduced by Birnbaum. He serves as the liaison to the toxicology community and works out of the Institute's Bethesda office. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Mary Gant, right, and Sheila Newton, Ph.D.
NIEHS legislative liaison Mary Gant, right, joined Director of the Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation Sheila Newton, Ph.D., to answer questions about implications for the Institute of pending legislation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NTP Associate Director John Bucher, Ph.D.
Bucher was upbeat in his report on Tox21 and said, "There's beginning to be some success at identifying 'fingerprints' of potential activities that are related to certain chemical types and structural relationships." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Thomas Gasiewicz, Ph.D.
Above, University of Rochester Professor Thomas Gasiewicz, Ph.D., concentrated as he listened to the budget report. Gasiewicz was attending his first Council meeting as its newest member. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jack Keene, Ph.D. conferring with Gwen Collman, Ph.D.
Keene, left, conferred with Collman during the minutes before he took the podium for his report. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The fall meeting (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/boards/naehsc/agenda/index.cfm) of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council (NAEHSC) Sept. 1-2 featured updates on some of the Institute's major high-profile efforts, including the Gulf oil spill response, advances in predictive toxicology, and allocation of stimulus funding. In addition to these big-picture reports, members also heard presentations on four concept clearances and other developments taking place since the Council's last meeting in May (see text box).

Presentations by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., NTP Associate Director John Bucher, Ph.D., and Interim Director of the Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) Gwen Collman, Ph.D., reported on progress of several ongoing initiatives. In addition, two science talks gave members insight into groundbreaking research with strong translational potential from investigators supported by the NIEHS intramural and extramural programs (see related story (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2010/october/science-council.cfm)).

Leadership presentations headline day one

After introducing NIEHS Director of Outreach and Education Ericka Reid, Ph.D., Toxicology Liaison Chris Weis, Ph.D., and Acting Associate Director of Management Chris Long and discussing ongoing searches for other members of her leadership team, Birnbaum turned to budget projections for fiscal year 2011. Describing herself as "guardedly optimistic," she said the comparatively good news is that things will probably not be as bad as they could have been, considering calls from the President and Congress to reduce federal spending. NIEHS, she said, may actually see a 2 to 3 percent increase - not a reduction in dollars, as some government agencies will likely face, but also not enough to keep pace with inflation.

In her update on the NIEHS Gulf oil spill effort, Birnbaum described the many NIEHS activities in the Gulf and the ambitious Gulf Worker Study announced officially Sept. 7 (see related story (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2010/october/spotlight-launch.cfm)). She noted that of 30 major oil spills, only eight had been studied to any degree in terms of health effects and only one, in Spain, had received long-term follow-up. For this reason, the Gulf Worker Study has tremendous potential for better understanding long-term health effects from worker exposures and responding to such disasters in the future.

The title of the NTP report by Bucher - "Connecting the Dots - Diseases, Genes, HTS Targets" - aptly described his report on the Tox21 multi-agency predictive toxicology initiative, the 12th Report on Carcinogens, and the new directions in activities of the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction(http://cerhr.niehs.nih.gov/), including a novel design of its workshop on diabetes scheduled for Jan. 11-13. As Tox21 partners enter the second phase of their activities, they have gained a powerful new tool with the purchase of DrugMatrix® database, acquired at what Bucher described as "a fire sale" from former owner Iconix.

When her turn came, Collman treated members to a detailed review thus far of outcomes from funding awarded by NIEHS as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), including a highly successful program of supplements for summer students and science educators that anticipated similar efforts planned by NIH. She also focused on the new NIEHS administrative role in the NIH Research on Research Integrity Program, involving investigation into bias and public trust, with possible expansion into the areas of community engagement and cultural diversity. Finally, Collman discussed the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee, co-led by NIEHS and the National Cancer Institute to help frame a strategic federal research agenda on environmental and genetic factors related to breast cancer (see related story (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2010/september/spotlight-new.cfm)).

Closing out the public portion of the Council meeting was a report by NIEHS Board of Scientific Counselors (BSC) chair Jack Keene, Ph.D. (http://mgm.duke.edu/faculty/keene/) Exit NIEHS, James B. Duke Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University. Keene described the advisory role of the BSC, explained the evaluation template for laboratories and principal investigators under review, and pointed to challenges facing the intramural program at NIEHS.

Highlights of a busy day

  • Legislative Report by Director of the Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation Sheila Newton, Ph.D.
  • Budget Update by Budget Officer Laurie Johnson
  • P30 Assessment by Program Analysis Branch Chief Christie Drew, Ph.D.
  • Superfund Research Program Strategic Plan by Center for Risk and Integrated Sciences Director Bill Suk, Ph.D.
  • Concept Clearance - Statistical, Bioinformatics, and Analytical Methods for Detection of G x E Interactions in Complex Diseases by Program Administrator Kim McAllister, Ph.D.
  • Concept Clearance - The Environmental Health Sciences Centralized KnowledgeBase by Program Administrator Elizabeth Maull, Ph.D.
  • Concept Clearance - Identification of Biomarkers for Early Detection of Mitochondrial Dysfunction by Program Administrator Daniel Shaughnessy, Ph.D.
  • Concept Clearance - Environmental Influences on Transcriptional Regulation by Health Scientist Administrator Lisa Chadwick, Ph.D.

More detailed summaries of Council presentations are available online (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/boards/naehsc/agenda/index.cfm).



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