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NIEHS Centers - Moving Discoveries from the Bench to the Bedside

By John Peterson
November 2006

David Schwartz
Schwartz has articulated his new vision for the centers programs. The Institute is realigning the centers to meet evolving challenges in environmental health science. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS Core Centers Program logo

At his recent meeting with the directors of the Institute's 25 Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) Core Centers, NIEHS Director David Schwartz outlined four major areas that will have the greatest impact on preventing disease and improving human health - basic science, disease-oriented research, global environmental health and training tomorrow's scientists. In order to support these and other new initiatives outlined in the NIEHS Strategic Plan, the current generation of NIEHS Centers will have a different focus - the translation of their basic science results to real-world applications with clinical benefits.

In addition to the EHS Core Centers, which provide centralized resources and facilities that are shared by investigators with existing research projects, the NIEHS Centers Program includes 33 other centers, headquartered at major universities and medical centers, where scientists look for better ways to evaluate the impact of environmental exposures on many common diseases, including asthma and other respiratory illnesses, breast cancer, reproductive and developmental disorders, Parkinson's disease and childhood illnesses. (See text box) "Our ultimate goal is to develop clinical applications that will benefit highly-exposed populations in the United States and around the globe," said Schwartz.

A major step in this direction is the requirement that each competing core center include a core facility that will promote the translation of basic research findings into clinical or public health applications. "Some of our existing centers already have this translation requirement built into their mission statements," said Schwartz.

Another major initiative is the recent unveiling of the Institute's newest Centers program, the Disease Investigation through Specialized Clinically Oriented Ventures in Environmental Research (DISCOVER) Centers. The purpose of the DISCOVER Centers is to speed the translation of basic research results into clinical applications by bringing together basic, clinical and population-based scientists to conduct research on the interplay between environmental and genetic factors in disease risk. The research will draw from many areas, including biomarkers, environmental genetics and genomics, patient-oriented research and epidemiology.

NIEHS has traditionally played a pivotal role in funding research on children's health, partnering with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over an eight-year period to support thirteen research centers devoted exclusively to children's environmental health and disease prevention. In order to identify the most effective ways of conducting research on the links between environmental exposures and childhood disease, the Institute is conducting an independent review of the many ways it can fund research on children's environmental health. "Children's health is a top priority, and NIEHS is committed to making the most of every research dollar," said Schwartz.

The Institute is also collaborating with the National Cancer Institute to fund four Breast Cancer and Environment Research Centers. The program will support research on the impact of prenatal, childhood and adult exposures that may predispose a girl to early onset of puberty, an accepted predictor of breast cancer risk. The research findings will be used to develop public health messages designed to educate young girls and women who are concerned about the causes of breast cancer, the roles played by environmental agents and the ways of reducing their exposures to these agents. The Institute is also sponsoring its third annual Early Environmental Exposures Meeting, November 2-3, 2006 in Berkeley, Calif., to allow community residents and breast cancer advocacy groups to participate in the presentation and discussion of the latest scientific findings.

Future plans also include some changes in the funding of the Institute's EHS Core Centers, where investigators with existing research grants share common resources and work on a collaborative agenda. Although the EHS Core Centers have been highly successful in supporting and promoting research on the environmental causes of disease, budgetary restrictions will result in a reduction in the number of core centers from 25 to 18 over a period of five years. "These core centers must continue to invest their research dollars into new areas and programs that will support our goals and objectives," said Schwartz.

Chief among these priorities is the Exposure Biology Program, one of two complementary research programs outlined in the Genes and Environment Initiative, a five-year, NIH-wide effort to identify the genetic and environmental underpinnings of human disease. The purpose of the program is to support the development of new technologies that will improve the measurement of environmental exposures that contribute to human disease. This program will include four new Biological Response Indicators of Environmental Stress Centers that will focus on the development of sensitive biomarkers that can reflect subtle changes in inflammation, oxidative damage and other pathways that lead to disease, and the incorporation of these markers into field- and laboratory-based sensing devices.

As they prepare for the new challenges that lie ahead, the NIEHS Centers will continue to provide health educators, policy makers and the public with a better understanding of the complex relationship between environmental risk factors and human disease.

NIEHS Centers Program

NIEHS Core Centers

Centers for Oceans

and Human Health

Centers for Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research

Centers for Population Health and Health Disparities

Comparative Mouse Genomics Centers Consortium

Toxicogenomics Research Consortium

Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers

Collaborative Centers for Parkinson's Disease Environmental Research

Dietary Supplement

Research Centers: Botanicals

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