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NCT Pioneers Pay Tribute to Ray Tennant

By Eddy Ball
January 2007

Olden speaking at the symposium
Olden was the keynote speaker at the symposium. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Olden, Weida Tong, Ph.D., Wilson, Tennant, Cindy Afshari, Ph.D., Peter Spencer, Ph.D., Bill Suk, Ph.D., Paules and David Balshaw, Ph.D
Symposium presenters and organizers gathered following the tribute to Tennant. From left, Olden, Weida Tong, Ph.D., Wilson, Tennant, Cindy Afshari, Ph.D., Peter Spencer, Ph.D., Bill Suk, Ph.D., Paules and David Balshaw, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Richard Paules, Ph.D.
Symposium Moderator Paules (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

On December 4, NIEHS opened the three-day Empowering Environmental Health Sciences Conference with a tribute to the accomplishments the former director of the National Center for Toxicogenomics (NCT), Ray Tennant, Ph.D. Moderated by Senior Scientist Richard Paules, Ph.D., the half-day symposium featured an introduction by NIEHS Deputy Director Sam Wilson, M.D., and concluded with a presentation by former NIEHS Director and current Senior Investigator Ken Olden, Ph.D.

As the NCT was being conceived in 2000, Wilson and Olden asked Tennant to serve as director. It was "a time when the conceptualization of how to operate the National Center of Toxicogenomics had not yet occurred," Wilson explained. Unlike existing programs at the Institute, "the new center was envisioned as a blend of the Intramural and Extramural community at NIEHS."

The Institute needed to deal with deeply ingrained conceptions about the responsibilities and management structures of the two well-differentiated divisions. What Wilson described as Tennant's "huge challenge" involved getting the divisions to collaborate effectively in launching the new science that became known as toxicogenomics - blending Intramural research/development and the Extramural community into a combined effort to move environmental science beyond classical toxicology.

One of the first major hurdles Tennant and NCT faced was setting program goals and creating a new series of definitions for a new lexicon, including the essential definition for the word "toxicogenomics." In conjunction with program goals, the definition of this central term tied together the new laboratory technologies with the research agenda, the computational and database products, and the translational outcomes envisioned for the research.

An essential component of this research agenda was the creation of the Toxicogenomics Research Consortium (TRC) and the establishment of the collaborative partnership between the NCT and TRC. The consortium centers included Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at the University of Washington, Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Researchers at these centers would perform toxicogenomic research using microarray and "omics" or global applications as well as standardize platforms and develop best practices for laboratory investigations and study design. As a result of their aggressive research agenda, TRC investigators have published 142 articles in peer-reviewed journals with an average impact rating of 6.7 - a rating higher than many of the most widely read scientific journals.

Olden concluded the symposium with a presentation titled "The Promise of Genomics for Environmental Health: The Integration of Genetic Data into Toxicology." Olden framed his talk as a rebuttal to a 2005 Harvard Environmental Law Review article, "The False Promise of the Genomics Revolution for Environmental Law" by University of Arizona law professor David E. Adelman. In his talk, Olden underscored the importance of the interaction of genetics and environment in disease pathogenesis and expressed his faith that researchers will overcome the technological difficulties in toxicogenomic research more easily than Adelman contends.

Despite his strong misgivings about Adelman's argument, Olden pointed to a key statement in the article's conclusion about the influence of toxicogenomics. It is a statement, Olden observed, that would never have been possible without Tennant's leadership at NCT. "The Environmental Genome Project is the first high-profile scientific initiative in environmental toxicology to receive broad stakeholder and government backing since the transformation of environmental law in 1970s," Adelman wrote. "Federal support for toxicogenomics research represents a unique opportunity for environmental toxicology to benefit from a major infusion of resources."

Following Olden's presentation, Tennant addressed the symposium for the first time. He thanked the speakers and added a characteristically modest assessment of his own role in NCT accomplishments. "I just want to say that I am touched and moved by all of the kind comments that all the speakers have made," Tennant said. "But I do need to set the record straight. The accomplishments of the NCT were in fact because of the work of so many fine people, many of whom are represented here in the audience. They're the ones who really accomplished what you've given me credit for."

Defining "Toxicogenomics"

Environmental toxicogenomics allows researchers to identify and characterize genomic signatures of environmental toxicants as gene and protein expression profiles. A major application of gene expression profiling is to understand human genetic variability and susceptibility to disease.

Program Goals

  • To facilitate the application of gene and protein expression technology
  • To understand the relationship between environmental exposures and human disease susceptibility
  • To identify useful biomarkers of disease and exposure to toxic substances
  • To improve computational methods for understanding the biological consequences of exposure and responses to exposure
  • To create a public database of environmental effects of toxic substances in biological systems

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