New Strategic Plan For Environmental Health Sciences Unveiled

David A. Schwartz, MD, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health, has unveiled a new strategic plan aimed at challenging and energizing the scientific community to use environmental health sciences to understand the causes of disease and to improve human health.

The plan, "New Frontiers in Environmental Sciences and Human Health" fundamentally changes the way NIEHS approaches research, officials said on May 1. Traditionally, NIEHS has supported individual scientists whose work focused on either basic biological responses to environmental agents or environmental problems in public health. The new strategy emphasizes research focused on complex human disease, and calls for inter-disciplinary teams of scientists to investigate a broad spectrum of disease factors, including environmental agents, genetics, age, diet, and activity levels. Recent advances in technology make this emphasis on human health and new integrative approach possible.

"Given that almost every human disease can be caused, modified, or altered by environmental agents, the NIEHS is in a unique position to focus on the interplay between exposures and biological responses," Schwartz said. "This document builds on the strengths of the institute, but redefines our focus and maximizes our use of new technologies like gene mapping, high throughput toxicity screening and computer-aided imaging. This provides a framework for enhancing our ability to respond to new challenges in biomedical research and to have an even greater impact on human health."

Schwartz cites the institute's work in the areas of genetic toxicity, inflammation, oxidative stress, as well as its contribution to improved public health as examples of its strengths.

The plan identifies seven major goals for NIEHS to achieve while also identifying some of the major challenges confronting the field. The concept of enhancing "integrative research" was identified as one of the major challenges. Another major challenge the Institute will address is ensuring that NIEHS research focuses on diseases known to have a strong environmental component.

The seven interrelated goals established in the new NIEHS Strategic Plan focus around four critical elements including basic research, human health and disease, global environmental health, and training. The goals are:

  • Expand the role of clinical research in environmental health sciences.
  • Use environmental toxicants to understand basic mechanisms in human biology
  • Build integrated environmental health research programs to address the crosscutting problems in human biology and human disease.
  • Improve and expand community-linked research.
  • Develop sensitive markers of environmental exposure, early (pre-clinical) biological response, and genetic susceptibility.
  • Recruit and train the next generation of environmental health scientists.
  • Foster the development of partnerships between the NIEHS and other NIH institutes, national and international research agencies, academia, industry, and community organizations to improve human health.

Each of the broad goals includes examples of necessary steps for achievement. For example, to strengthen the institute's role in clinical research, NIEHS will encourage the training of more Ph.D.s and physicians to conduct and/or support this type of integrated research.

The plan, published as a supplement to the May issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, and available online at http://www.niehs.nih.gov/external/plan2006, is the result of nearly a year-long process of discussions with more than 400 scientific and public leaders from academia, government, medical professions, community advocacy groups, and the general public. It includes input from a national web survey, active participation of 90 individuals during a two-day Strategic Planning Forum in October, 2005, followed by discussions with members of the NIEHS Public Interest Liaison Group, numerous opportunities for public review and comment on draft documents, and much input from NIEHS staff and members of the NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council (NAEHSC).

The NIEHS has already begun implementing some new programs to meet its goals and objectives. The establishment of the Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES --http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/rfa-files/RFA-ES-05-005.html) program, to be awarded to at least six recipients for the first time this year will help to bring talented new scientists to the field. The NIEHS also is planning to develop an outpatient clinical research unit at its facility in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Another major area identified as critical is the need to develop sensitive, quantitative markers to assess levels of environmental exposures at the individual level. One way this will be accomplished is through the new Genes and Environment Initiative (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/oc/news/gei.htm), a research effort at NIH to combine a type of genetic analysis and environmental technology development to understand the causes of common diseases.

To ensure a more integrated approach to research, the NIEHS has developed an Office of Translational Research and has initiated several new opportunities in integrated research. NIEHS has recently announced the Director's Challenge for in-house scientists and a new research program called DISCOVER (Disease Investigation for Specialized Clinically Oriented Ventures in Environmental Research) for scientists outside NIEHS. Both the Director's Challenge and the DISCOVER program are designed to support teams of researchers focused on integrating environmental health research with patient-oriented and population-based studies.

Another goal articulated in the plan includes fostering the development of partnerships with other Institutes, agencies, academia, industry and community organizations.

"I am pleased to see that advocacy groups will continue to have a voice at the NIEHS," said Lisa M. Greenhill, associate executive director for diversity, Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, and a member of the NAEHSC. "Forming partnerships early on and sustaining those relationships with community members will enhance the design of many of the research projects NIEHS is undertaking."

For additional information, contact NIEHS at http://www.nih.gov.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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