By Paula Whitacre
For more than a decade, NIEHS has been a global leader in research and science translation on the potential impact of environmental chemicals on the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD): that is, how maternal exposures to different chemicals not only can have an impact on a newborn, but also on the health of that offspring throughout his or her life. And much of that leadership has come from Jerrold Heindel, Ph.D., health sciences administrator in the NIEHS Population Health Branch and focus area lead for the NIEHS-World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences on this topic. After 25 years of service to the institute, Heindel will retire at the end of 2016.
In describing his own role, Heindel recently said, “I became the de facto person at NIEHS who was considered the DOHaD expert. Other people were just as expert in their areas, but I thought of pulling the research together to develop a presentation.”
“Once you develop a talk, you get invited different places to give it,” he added.
In contrast to these understated explanations, his colleagues in the Population Health Branch describe his role very differently. They describe him as playing a pivotal role as a leader in the field, giving influential lectures throughout Europe to bring this topic to the attention of scientists, and playing a pivotal role in the development of the landmark State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals – 2012 report published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and WHO. Heindel also helped raise awareness of this science in Africa, through dissemination of the UNEP/WHO report and organizing a DOHaD Society meeting in South Africa.
“He’s had a profound impact,” said Kimberly Gray, Ph.D., who oversees the Children’s Environmental Health Centers co-sponsored by NIEHS and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “He keeps the dialogue going between multidisciplinary groups to really look at these issues as not just affecting children, but how they will affect public health today and into the future.”
Thaddeus Schug, Ph.D., will take on many of Heindel’s DOHaD-related responsibilities at NIEHS. He characterized Heindel as a “passionate advocate who has tried to push programs and get people talking with each other about DOHaD, endocrine disruptors, and other areas.”
Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, further expanded on Heindel’s key contributions to the development of DOHaD. “Jerry has an uncanny way of identifying gaps in the literature and systematically filling them, as demonstrated by his work on environmental chemicals as obesogens,” she said. “He has always promoted the value of collaborations and used his unique approach to connect scientists to develop methods to advance the field of reproductive and developmental toxicology. With dogged persistence, numerous persuasive lectures around the world, and an amazing publication record, he has had a huge role in bringing environmental health to the concept of DOHaD."
One Step at a Time
Heindel received his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Michigan and worked in the area of reproductive biology and toxicology while on the faculty at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and the University of Mississippi. He first came to NIEHS to head its reproductive and developmental toxicology group. In 1997, he moved to the Division of Extramural Research and Training. In addition to research on DOHaD, he has developed and administers grants programs in endocrine disruptors, reproductive toxicology, and obesity. He also coordinates a virtual consortium of researchers studying the effects of bisphenol A.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, researchers, most notably David Barker, M.D., began to connect low infant birthweight with cardiovascular disease and other conditions later in life. While recognizing the role of nutrition and validity of what is now known as the Barker Hypothesis, Heindel recognized, “We had a lot of data on environmental chemicals.”
“History-wise, we put out an initiative to focus on environmental chemicals and the developmental origin of disease,” Heindel said. In three years, from 2003 to 2005, NIEHS funded 36 small grants. “Those grants were key to getting the field off the ground,” he said.
From an initial focus on endocrine disruptors, NIEHS has expanded DOHaD research to include epigenetics, transgenerational effects, and, most recently, the microbiome. As stated in a 2015 review in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease that was co-authored by Astrid Haugen, Ph.D., Schug, Collman, and Heindel: “With mounting evidence connecting early-life exposures to later-life disease, we conclude that it is critical to expand the original DOHaD concept…and continue a research agenda that emphasizes defining sensitive windows of exposure and the mechanisms that cause disease.”
“When I began at NIEHS 25 years ago, this research was not going on,” said Heindel. “It developed step by step. That’s how science goes, one step at a time.”
Expanding the Outreach
Leonardo Trasande, M.D., New York University School of Medicine, recalled how Heindel introduced himself in 2011 when the two men were attending separate meetings at WHO headquarters. “That moment began a five-year venture to look at the evidence of the contributions of endocrine disruptors to disease and disability in Europe and the United States,” Trasande said. The collaboration resulted in published studies in 2015 and 2016 that quantified the economic impact of these health effects. “I give him full credit for instigating the right kinds of conversations to do this important work,” said Trasande.
Gray pointed to the series of conferences called Prenatal Programming and Toxicity (PPTox) as an example of Heindel’s ability to build bridges and bring different disciplines together. The first PPTox conference was convened by Philippe Grandjean, M.D., D.M.Sc., in the Faroe Islands in 2007. “We first met when we were planning the first PPTox conference,” Grandjean recalled. “He was clearly a walking encyclopedia who apparently never slept, and I knew right away that I had better stay in touch with this key resource.” They have worked formally and informally for a decade.
Heindel broadened the scope of the PPTox conferences, involving the Endocrine Society and many other organizations. “People appreciate that we bring together animal and human researchers, and that we look at nutrition, stress, and environmental chemicals,” Heindel said of the meetings that have since been held in Paris, Boston, and most recently, in November 2016, Japan.
Heindel, Gray, and Schug served on the international program committee for PPTox V in Kitakyushu, Japan, where NIEHS held a brainstorming session with a focus on Pacific Rim collaborations. Grandjean described the session as a reflection of Heindel’s talents. “Scientists from about 20 important birth cohorts from around the world discussed strategies and priorities,” he said. “Jerry has that hard-to-define talent to get colleagues to appreciate that we can do more if we work together. In short, he is a catalyst.”
Heindel’s catalytic role and legacy are exemplified by the U.S. DOHaD Society, which Heindel was instrumental in launching at an inaugural meeting in October 2016. A branch of the international DOHaD Society, the U.S. group is considering its next steps, including a conference and other ways to share research and information with a focus on environmental factors. Heindel said he plans to remain active in the society and in other aspects of DOHaD and, more broadly, global environmental health after retirement from NIEHS.