Exposure Biology Research Program
David M. Balshaw, Ph.D. (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/dert/ertb/balshaw/index.cfm)
Acting Branch Chief
Many of today’s greatest public health challenges, including recent increases in diabetes, childhood asthma, obesity, and autism, are likely caused by a combination of genes and environment. Genetic factors, which a person inherits from his or her parents, can make a person more susceptible to a disease. But environmental factors such as diet, physical activity, stress, and exposure to toxic chemicals often influence when and how severely the person gets the disease.
The field of exposure biology focuses on unraveling how the toxicants a person is exposed to during life can interact with each other, with lifestyle factors, and with a person’s genes to cause disease. NIEHS currently supports more than 30 research projects in this exciting area, which aim to advance environmental health in two main ways: by looking at collections of environmental exposures rather than single events, and by measuring exposures more precisely than has previously been possible.
Most people are not simply exposed to one toxicant at one point in time—they encounter many chemicals, some harmful and some not, at various points and in various concentrations throughout life. The health effects of these exposures are likely to be affected by a person’s diet, stress level, genetic predispositions, and other factors. Exposure biology examines the effects of environmental exposures in this broader context.
Exposure biology also provides more precise, real-time information about which environmental factors a person has been exposed to and the health effects of those exposures. Traditionally, scientists have used questionnaires to measure exposures. For example, epidemiologists might ask people to recall which foods they’ve eaten or the number of hours they worked at a chemical processing plant. These questions can be difficult for people to answer accurately, especially after time has passed. NIEHS-funded exposure biology researchers are developing pioneering technologies to sense chemicals in the environment; directly measure a person’s exposures or lifestyle factors; and examine how the body responds to these factors at the molecular level.
From 2007-2010, NIEHS and other NIH institutes coordinated research on exposure biology and genetics through the Genes, Environment, and Health Initiative. Although that program has ended, NIEHS remains committed to advancing exposure biology and supports many promising research efforts in this area. Several useful technologies and tools have been developed through the GEI exposure initiative, as well as methods to validate these tools. They include:
- Biological Response Indicators
- Diet and Physical Activity
- Personal Exposure Assessment
- Psychosocial Stress and Substance Abuse
- Validation Methods
Daniel Shaughnessy, Ph.D. (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/dert/ertb/shaughnessy/index.cfm)
Health Scientist Administrator
Jennifer Collins (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/dert/ertb/collins/index.cfm)
Kimberly A. McAllister, Ph.D. (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/dert/geh/mcallister/index.cfm)
Health Scientist Administrator