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Environmental Factor, February 2012

Women's health takes the spotlight

By Melissa Kerr

DERT Director Gwen Collman, Ph. D., at the podium welcoming the consortium

Collman opened the meeting with a personal story about why research in women's reproductive health is important. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Karin Russ, holding index cards

Russ passed out index cards and asked attendees to articulate their goals for the day and for the consortium in the long term. She was a gracious, but strict, facilitator who kept speakers to their allotted ten minutes. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Nina Holland, Ph. D., speaking at the podium

Holland came to the consortium to offer the use of her laboratory's extensive biorepository, as well as to speak about her work on how exposure to pollutants, including pesticides, may result in epigenetic effects. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Cheryl Walker, Ph.D., speaking at the podium

Walker described her group’s protein domain microarray strategy for identifying modular signaling units as candidates for empirical verification to determine whether phosphorylation makes a difference in estrogen binding. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Louis Guillette Jr., Ph.D., listening in the audience

Best known for his Heinz Award-winning work with alligators, Guillette recently moved from the University of Florida to the Medical University of South Carolina, where he will have the opportunity to translate his wildlife work to clinical research with human subjects. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS welcomed leading scientists to a meeting Jan. 20 to lay the foundation for a consortium focused on advancing research in women's reproductive health. The all-day event was co-hosted by Jerry Heindel, Ph.D., a program administrator in the Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) and Karin Russ, national coordinator of The Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE) (http://www.healthandenvironment.org/)  450-member Fertility and Reproductive Health working group and the meeting’s facilitator.

DERT Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., welcomed the attendees and opened the meeting with a push for scientists to continue thinking of the women for whom the research could provide answers. “Women’s reproductive health is a huge area covering many diseases and dysfunctions over the lifetime, and we have a lot of work to do,” she said. “I believe that what you have started here is an important step in the right direction.”

Heindel opened the day by challenging attendees to answer the question, “How [can we] improve our interactions and the impact on the field, and get the data out there to make a difference?” Answers ranged from suggestions about sharing samples and technology to raising public awareness and educating legislators.

Science on the run

Along with two keynote scientific sessions, the agenda included a tight schedule of research summaries from 15 speakers, all eager to discuss their research in as much detail as possible within the ten minutes allotted and connect with others (see text box). With speakers limited to three slides, Russ compared the format to speed dating, intended to introduce researchers and pique the scientists’ interest in forming partnerships.

The morning’s keynote speaker, veteran grantee Cheryl Walker, Ph.D., (http://www.ibt.tamhsc.edu/labs/ctcr/director/index.html)  of Texas A&M University, described her team's work on the interaction of environmental estrogen exposure with the epigenome. “We are interested in how environmental compounds are regulating the readers, the writers and the erasers of the epigenetic program,” she explained. Her team is using a newly developed microarray testing protocol to isolate key histone methyl marks that may be causing an elevated risk of disease later in life.

The afternoon’s keynote session featured John McLachlan, Ph. D., (http://www.drlatulane.org/about/bios/Biography%20of%20John%20McLachlan.html)  who served as NIEHS scientific director prior to moving to Tulane University in 1995. McLachlan discussed the concept of developmental estrogenization syndrome and asked the audience to question how the study of this syndrome should proceed. Despite extensive research on this topic, he said, “there are huge gaps in mechanistic data in humans.”

Outcomes of the day

Heindel joined McLachlan in an animated discussion of how the group could engage the general public and policymakers, as well as the broader scientific community. Women’s reproductive health needs something to make it resonate, suggested McLauchlan, the way Bhopal and the AIDS epidemic moved people to get involved and take action.

Russ concluded the meeting by describing the way CHE could help bring together scientists to share research on various environmental factors that can contribute to disease. She spoke about the importance of reaching out to professional organizations and advocacy groups by making science relevant. “Being a former health care provider, I am very interested in translation to clinical practice,” she explained.

Reflecting on the day’s presentations and discussions, Russ also shared some of the encouraging outcomes of the meeting. She noted that one scientist asked for help in analyzing tissue and data, another offered to share biorepository samples, and yet another offered to share a new array testing technology.

These were just a few examples that Russ came across, but she seemed delighted about the future contributions the group will make in women's reproductive health. “These concrete outcomes are very, very exciting,” she said. She encouraged the consortium to take advantage of CHE resources, to spread their message at public talks and at meetings of clinical and disease societies, and to build on the relationships they formed at the meeting.

(Melissa Kerr studies chemistry at North Carolina Central University. She is currently an intern in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)


John McLachlan, Ph. D., asking questions to the attendees

McLachlan asked the attendees several questions on how to categorize chemicals with estrogenic properties and the potential effects on a woman's reproductive system, as well as how to raise visibility of environmental estrogens by capitalizing on concerns about obesity. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Carmen Williams Ph.D., M.D., speaking into a microphone

Williams was one of several NIEHS Division of Intramural Research scientists participating in the meeting. She presented recent findings on infertility and altered gene expression following neonatal exposure to DES and genistein in a mouse model. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Group photo of the consortium in front of the lake

The consortium gathered on the lakeside patio at NIEHS.


The presenters

  • Kevin Osteen, Ph.D., and Kaylon Bruner-Tran, Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University
  • David Crews, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Austin
  • Andrea Gore, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Austin
  • David Waxman, Ph.D., Alexander Suvorov, Ph.D., and Nicholas Lodato of Boston University
  • Nina Holland, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley
  • Louis Guillette Jr., Ph.D., and Satomi Kohno, Ph.D., of the Medical University of South Carolina
  • Ana Soto, M.D., of Tufts University
  • Rita Loch-Caruso Ph.D., of the University of Michigan
  • Shanna Swan, Ph.D., of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine
  • Michael Bloom, Ph.D., University at Albany
  • Vasantha Padmanabhan, Ph.D.
  • Hugh Taylor, M.D., of Yale University
  • Carmen Williams, M.D., Ph.D., of the NIEHS Reproductive Medicine Group


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