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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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Coming Together as One to Solve Global Environmental Health Problems

There is increasing recognition that many global health problems occur at the intersection of environmental, animal, and human health, often referred to as the One Health nexus. Acknowledging this, global health solutions require the combined expertise of scientific, medical, technological, policy, and communication professionals, among others. Typically, this technical capacity is beyond what is present at a local level, where the impact of global health problems hit the hardest. NIEHS recently engaged in an new efforts to solve this pressing topic while attending the 3rd International Conference on One Medicine One Science (iCOMOS).

Held April 29 – May 2, 2018, iCOMOS brought researchers, health officials, policy experts, students, and others from 35 countries to Minneapolis, Minnesota to build capacity and collaborations to solve global One Health problems. The effort is led by a team at the University of Minnesota (UMN), including staff of the schools of veterinary medicine, medicine, public health, nursing, and others.

Over the course of nearly two years, Kimberly Thigpen Tart, J.D. M.P.H., a health science policy analyst in the NIEHS Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation, and Heather Henry, Ph.D., a program officer in the NIEHS Superfund Research Program, worked with UMN to help plan the 3rd iCOMOS. One of NIEHS’s main goals was to help bring the Institute’s human health perspective and extensive global environmental health network to iCOMOS.

“The conference and the consortium aim to build a sustainable community of practitioners, researchers, and partner institutions committed to supporting high impact health research, education, and care around the world,” said Sriram Rao, Ph.D., associate dean for research in UMN College of Veterinary Medicine, professor at UMN Medical School, and founder of the iCOMOS. “As the lead U.S. federal agency for environmental health, NIEHS brings a critical set of skills, knowledge, and networks to this activity.”

As part of the meeting, NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., gave a keynote address during which she provided an overview on how the Institute’s research and initiatives integrate the One Medicine One Science concept. Her presentation highlighted programs focused on exposures from those at the planetary level such as climate change; to those at the community level including Disaster Research Response, ecological restoration, and research using sentinel species. Birnbaum also underscored research occurring at the individual level, focusing on the microbiome and exposome. She also described innovative approaches and tools being developed for predictive modeling, data integration, and population-scale studies.

“I am acutely aware of the interconnection of humans, animals, and the environment, and of the critical need to further our understanding of this interconnection in order to protect the health of our planet and all who inhabit it,” said Birnbaum, alluding to her background working at the Environmental Protection Agency prior to becoming director of NIEHS.

Birnbaum was among an esteemed group of keynote speakers that included Nobel Laureates Peter Agre, Ph.D., and Peter Doherty, M.D.; World Food Prize Laureate Robert Mwanga, Ph.D.; and L’Oreal-UNESCO Women-in-Science Laureate Hualan Chen, Ph.D. Among other prominent speakers was Maria Neira, M.D., director of the World Health Organization Department of Public Health and Environment.

In addition to the main program, Thigpen Tart and Henry also worked with colleagues at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Hortencia Hornbeak, Ph.D., associate director for scientific review and Peter Jackson, Ph.D., chief of the AIDS Research Review Branch. Together, they held a day-long joint concurrent workshop that showcased examples of each institute’s One Health projects and presented targeted information on funding mechanisms, data science tools and resources, collaboration building practices, and other practical means to support global environmental health efforts. “Our goal for the workshop was to show how integrated the One Medicine One Health concept is in the work of our institutes, as well as to provide highly practical and accessible information that our international colleagues can use to build capacity for work on environmental health and infectious disease problems in their own countries,” said Thigpen Tart.

John Balbus, M.D., M.P.H., NIEHS senior advisor for public health and director of the Institute’s Global Environmental Health Program, provided the highly attentive audience with an overview of NIEHS’ opportunities and activities in global health engagement and partnership building.

“The ability to reach out to the different disciplines of One Health, especially scientists from low income countries, and orient them to critical environmental health problems, fundamentally advances the mission of NIEHS and the Global Environmental Health Program,” said Balbus. “This workshop provided a great platform for those discussions.”

The iCOMOS workshop gave NIEHS an opportunity to share compelling projects of four grantees working directly at the intersection of human, animal, and environmental health, including:

  • Jose Cordero, M.D., the Patel distinguished professor of public health at the University of Georgia, described his efforts to better understand the interactions between pesticide exposures and Zika infections in a maternal-child birth cohort in Puerto Rico.
  • Frank Von Hippel, Ph.D., a professor of ecotoxicology at Northern Arizona University, shared the latest findings of his investigations on endocrine disruption and disease in Yupik people exposed to persistent organic pollutants in the U.S. Arctic. Von Hippel stressed the need for and advantages of building trust and capacity in the communities we study.
  • Maureen Lichtveld, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Global Environmental Health Sciences at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, focused on building community resilience and research capacity around health disparities and disaster preparedness.
  • Nishad Jayasundara, Ph.D., an assistant professor of physiology at the School of Marine Sciences and Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering at University of Maine in Orono, described his work in his home country of Sri Lanka using fish as a sentinel species to unravel an environmental health mystery. He seeks to answer: Why do young men (mostly) in certain parts of the world develop chronic kidney disease at alarming and unexpected rates?

NIEHS staff and grantees pose at iCOMOS from L to R: Jose Cordero., Kimberly Thigpen Tart, , Frank Von Hippel.,  Heather Henry, Nishad Jayasundara, Maureen Lichtveld.
NIEHS staff and grantees gather after their workshop on global environmental health at iCOMOS. L to R: Jose Cordero, University of Georgia; Kimberly Thigpen Tart, NIEHS; Frank Von Hippel, Northern Arizona University; Heather Henry, NIEHS; Nishad Jayasundara, University of Maine at Orono; Maureen Lichtveld, Tulane University.
(Photo courtesy of Heather Henry)