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Environmental Factor, September 2012

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Guttmacher shares vision for future of NICHD

By Brant Hamel

Alan Guttmacher, M.D.,

Guttmacher explained that researchers still don’t completely understand pregnancy. “We don’t understand what normal pregnancy looks like,” he said, “[and] treatments have gotten ahead of our understanding of infertility biology.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and Alan Guttmacher, M.D.

Birnbaum and Guttmacher were able to combine humor with seriousness during the free-ranging question and answer segment of the presentation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Alan Guttmacher, M.D., director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), visited NIEHS Aug. 7 to discuss “NICHD’s Vision for the Future of Research,” during a talk hosted by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

The talk highlighted major scientific areas across the breadth of the NICHD mission, with a focus on the most promising opportunities for advancement in the next decade. Guttmacher also pointed out ways increased collaboration could help to advance major research interests shared by NICHD and NIEHS. 

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Highlighting common themes for NICHD and NIEHS

“Like you,” Guttmacher told his audience, “we are not disease focused.” Because of that latitude, both institutes have interests that range across the field of biomedical research and embrace the practice of interdisciplinary collaboration.

As Guttmacher introduced the eight content areas of NICHD research, he pointed to the most important nexus between his institute and NIEHS. “As we looked carefully at our goals,” he said, “environment emerged as a common thread across these themes.” The NICHD would like to better understand how the environment interacts with the genome to influence basic processes, such as development and natural variability, as well as support more applied work on how nutrition and environmental factors affect plasticity and rehabilitation.

Throughout his presentation, Guttmacher underscored similarities between NIEHS and NICHD, which were both launched in the turbulent, but forward-looking 1960s. NICHD is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, just four years before NIEHS will mark its half century as an institute. Both filled important needs at NIH, which had virtually no pediatric research underway prior to NICHD, and little in the way of environmental health science activity before the creation of NIEHS.

Like NIEHS, NICHD has a very broad mission statement, spanning virtually the entire lifetime of humans, from events at preconception that may influence health after conception through old age, to medical rehabilitation, which may be one of the final interventions in an individual’s life. Also in common with NIEHS, which just this month launched its five-year strategic plan, NICHD has also just completed its own forward-looking visioning process.

Advancing the NICHD mission at 50

NICHD’s scientific vision is grouped into multiple themes, with the potential for major scientific advancement in the next 10 years, Guttmacher explained. In the fields of reproduction, molecular genetics, genomics, and epidemiology, NICHD could make important contributions toward defining the heritable and non-heritable components of infertility and subfecundity.

As at NIEHS, a high priority in NICHD research is better understanding the early origins of health and disease, and how events during pregnancy and even preconception may affect development and adult health. Towards that goal, Guttmacher noted that the placenta was vastly underutilized as a record of intrauterine gene-environment interactions. He also said that there is a huge pool of pregnant women who could provide a multitude of informative data, if applications to easily capture their experiences became available.

Another major theme for NICHD is technology — both in terms of how it affects health and how it could be used to further biomedical research. One of the visions for the theme of behavior and cognition is to understand how the use of new technologies is influencing child and adolescent behavior.

Guttmacher also touched on the conduct of science and how it might change in the next ten years.  Noting that many breakthroughs occur at the borders of disciplines, he encouraged policies to support interdisciplinary research, such as multidisciplinary incubators, shared sabbatical time for groups working across disciplines, and better ways to evaluate tenure for people who work on large interdisciplinary projects.

Stressing the need for development of broad diverse biorepositories, and tools to increase data sharing and analysis from studies so that data could be correlated across different disciplines, Guttmacher pointed to the responsibility for integrating and disseminating data.  “Data does not belong to the PI [lead researcher],” he said. “It belongs to the public.”

(Brant Hamel, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research Training Award fellow in the NIEHS Molecular Endocrinology Group of the Laboratory of Signal Transduction.)

Barbara Entwisle, Ph.D.

Also on hand for the presentation was NICHD grantee Barbara Entwisle, Ph.D., vice chancellor for research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who had questions about the National Children’s Study (NCS). Entwisle is the director of the North Carolina components of the NCS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

are Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., Kim Gray, Ph.D., Patricia Jensen, Ph.D., and Jerry Heindel, Ph.D.

NIEHS scientists appreciated Guttmacher’s description of their shared interests and values, and they enjoyed his comic relief. Shown, left to right, are Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., Kim Gray, Ph.D., Patricia Jensen, Ph.D., and Jerry Heindel, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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