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Environmental Factor, November 2012

NIEHS researchers gather to combat obesity

By Thaddeus Schug

While dietary excess and lack of exercise are well-established factors fueling the obesity epidemic in the U.S., new research is emerging that suggests a class of environmental chemicals, termed obesogens, may also play a significant role in the risks associated with developing diabetes and obesity.

These connections were the focus of the “NIEHS Obesity/Diabetes/Metabolic Syndrome Grantee Meeting” Oct. 3-4 at the Ann Arbor Regent Hotel in Michigan. The meeting brought together NIEHS grantees and other scientists, representing fields ranging from molecular biology to epidemiology, to examine the science linking exposure to certain chemicals with the development of diabetes and obesity in humans.

DERT program administrator Jerry Heindel, Ph.D., welcomed the attendees and opened the meeting with a push for scientists to provide input on potential testing strategies, options for identifying and filling data gaps, and future research needs to address the health problems associated with obesity. “Obesity is becoming a major health concern worldwide and a contributor to many diseases and dysfunctions over people’s lifetime,” he said. “I believe that what you have started here in this virtual consortium is an important step in determining how environmental exposures contribute to metabolic disease.”

New grantees take the spotlight

While the meeting contained a wide range of experts in the field of obesity, the focus was primarily on new NIEHS grantees funded through two recent initiatives — Dietary Influence on the Human Health Effects of Environmental Exposures (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/rfa-files/RFA-ES-11-002.html)  and Role of Environmental Chemical Exposures in the Development of Obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and Metabolic Syndrome. (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/par-11-170.html)  Participants were given the opportunity to highlight their research proposal and preliminary data, and then engage in a question and answer session with the audience.

“As a hematologist, environmental and occupational chemical exposures to the liver keep me awake at night and present serious metabolic health concerns,” said Matthew Cave, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Louisville. Cave was recently awarded a grant for studies aimed at determining the impact of polychlorinated biphenyls exposure on obesity and metabolic syndrome through toxic metabolic endotoxemia.

Maria Bondesson, Ph.D., a research assistant professor of biology and biochemistry at the University of Houston, described a new project in which she uses zebrafish as a model system to detect chemical pollutants that perturb embryonic development which, in turn, leads to metabolic diseases later in life. NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who attended the second day of the meeting, asked Bondesson and other grantees questions, and offered suggestions on how they could work to better coordinate their research with the new NIEHS strategic plan.

The meeting ended with a session led by Heindel and DERT program administrator Kimberly Gray, Ph.D., on data sharing, and how to improve communication between animal and human researchers. “I encourage you [researchers] to pool resources, share data, and to integrate endpoints on animal and human studies, so that we can more directly translate your findings to improve human health,” concluded Birnbaum, who also gave the keynote address at a symposium following the grantee meeting (see text box).

(Thaddeus Schug, Ph.D., is a health scientist in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)


Participants from "NIEHS Obesity/Diabetes/Metabolic Syndrome Grantee Meeting”

Participants from the NIEHS grantee meeting joined Heindel and Birnbaum, center front, outside the Ann Arbor Regent Conference Center. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Heindel)


Birnbaum keynotes symposium

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., delivered the keynote presentation, “NIEHS and a Vision for Environmental Health,” at the Developmental Origins of Metabolic Disease Symposium (http://sitemaker.umich.edu/pediatric.endo/home)  held Oct. 5 at the University of Michigan, organized by the Department of Pediatrics. Birnbaum highlighted NIEHS’ interest in addressing the contributory role of environmental pollutants to this growing epidemic and available research funding opportunities through the Institute. Obesity, she noted, has risen in prevalence along the same trajectory as several other diseases with known environmental components, suggesting that environmental factors, as well as lifestyle and diet, may be involved in its etiology.

The event was hosted by NIEHS grantee Vasantha Padmanabhan, Ph.D., a professor of pediatrics and director of pediatric endocrine research at the University of Michigan. Other speakers included researchers from throughout the U.S. and Great Britain.

  • “Sex-Specific Inheritance and Transmission of Obesity-Related Phenotypes Following Exposure to a Maternal High Fat Diet,” Tracy Bale, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania
  • “You Are What Your Mother Ate: Developmental Patterning of Inflammation,” Jacob (Jed) Friedman, Ph.D., University of Colorado
  • “DOHaD [Developmental Origins of Health and Disease]: Epigenetic Mechanisms,” Mark Hanson, D.Phil., University of Southampton
  • “Mechanisms Underlying the Developmental Programming of Type 2 Diabetes,” Susan Ozanne, Ph.D., University of Cambridge
  • “Intergenerational Effects of Developmental Nutritional Exposures,” Mary-Elizabeth Patti, M.D., Harvard Medical School
  • “Improving Intrauterine Growth Restriction Through the Pancreatic Beta Cell,” Paul Rozance, M.D., University of Colorado
  • “Nutritional Modification of Brain Development and Energy Balance,” Richard Simerly, Ph.D., University of Southern California
  • “Interventions to Prevent the Development of Obesity in the Offspring of Obese Animals,” Rebecca Simmons, M.D., University of Pennsylvania


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