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Tuesday, August 1, 2000, 12:00 a.m. EDT
New Center to Look for Precise Step When a Cell Tips Toward Death, Disease
NIEHS scientists foresee that it soon may be possible to determine the exact molecular step - the precise moment in a vast array of cellular processes - in which a chemical disrupts a normal cell's balance, tipping it either toward cell death or damaged survival and/or uncontrolled growth.
Not only, they say, will scientists pinpoint the "when" and "where," but also the "how" of cancer and many other diseases.
Top NIEHS scientists want to be there, doing that - producing the molecular information that should help doctors and drug companies halt, cure or modify diseases. If you can spot the early molecular turning points, they are convinced, you can find ways to deflect the resulting diseases.
NIEHSers are laying plans: As a home for the coordination of this work in the extramural community as well as at NIEHS, NIEHS executives foresee the creation of a "National Center for Toxicogenomics" at NIEHS. Ray Tennant, chief of the Laboratory of Environmental Carcinogenesis/Mutagenesis, would head the Center and Ben Van Houten would serve as liaison with Extramural.
A major goal of the Center would be to establish a public toxicogenomics database. It would be expanded and refined as information evolves on biological responses to environmental stressors.
Within NIEHS and through extramural grants and collaborations, according to concept talks thus far, Center scientists would:
- Develop ways to screen chemicals (including prescription drugs) via the patterns of cloned genes they turn on or turn off. (Cynthia Afshari and Rick Paules are already doing pilot projects toward this end, using computers to help recognize the patterns and compare them with the patterns produced by known toxins. This effort would be expanded.)
- Uncover, through the study of these genetic response patterns, basic information about how toxins harm the body's genes and cells. (Senior scientists such as Thomas Kunkel, Douglas Bell and Perry Blackshear will help screen potential projects.)
- Identify, by similar means, the alterations in gene expression and proteins that result from exposure to a chemical. These biomarkers, providing clear evidence of exposures in individuals, could revolutionize risk assessment.
- Provide insights on susceptibility by comparing the gene and protein responses of people who get sick when exposed to the responses of people who are not affected.
As envisioned, the Toxicogenomics Center would work closely with the Environmental Genome Project to refine gene expression study techniques in order to demonstrate the varying genetic susceptibility in people - and the varying susceptibility at various stages of our lives.
The Center would also create a database to which scientists all over the world could both contribute and use information about genetic variation, the newly expanding field of proteomics (the molecular-level study of proteins) and biomarkers.
NIEHS has already been given a lead role in the development of biomarkers for assessing drug safety in an FDA-NIH collaboration. The new center would advance that effort.
Institute Director Kenneth Olden and Deputy Director Sam Wilson (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/od/deputy/index.cfm) have encouraged Tennant to develop one or more workshops where fellow scientists could critique and refine the ideas for the Center before seeking and starting to spend the millions of dollars necessary to launch such a project.
Out of such workshops grew the final plans for the Environmental Genome Project. A National Center for Toxicogenomics, its boosters say, is the next big idea from NIEHS.
American Public Health Association Plans Rall Award for Science-Based Advocacy
The American Public Health Association (http://www.apha.org/) is sponsoring an annual Rall Award (http://www.apha.org/about/awards/davidrall/) named for former NIEHS Director David Rall, who died last September after an automobile accident in France.
The award commemorates Rall's "enormous contributions to environmental health and lead poisoning prevention" and will recognize people who, like Dr. Rall himself, have made outstanding contributions to public health through science-based advocacy.
As the sponsor of the Rall Award, the The Alliance To End Childhood Lead Poisoning (http://www.afhh.org/) is responsible for raising $50,000 to endow this award in perpetuity. The Alliance is seeking contributions from the many individuals who were colleagues, friends, and admirers of Dave Rall, in addition to Unions, Universities and Organizations.
For information on the award nomination process, email firstname.lastname@example.org.