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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

March 2022

Scientific innovation front and center during NIEHS council meeting

Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, machine learning, and other tools will spur breakthroughs and aid research translation, experts said.

Emerging innovation will strengthen NIEHS-funded research and enable discoveries that lead to improvements in public health, according to presenters at the 165th meeting of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council (NAEHSC), held Feb. 15-16.

Director’s report

NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D. , kicked off the meeting with updates on new research initiatives, scientific awards, and staff changes.

Hand with an illustrated light bulb floating over it Promoting innovation is one of Woychik’s leadership aims. “We must be fearless and uninhibited in our pursuit of new knowledge,” he wrote in his inaugural Director’s Corner column , published last year. (Photo courtesy of jijomathaidesigners / Shutterstock.com)
  • Scientists in the institute’s Division of Intramural Research discovered a potential therapy for bacterial pneumonia that targets host cells instead of bacterial cells. The treatment involves macrophages, which are white blood cells of the immune system that destroy bacteria, and anti-inflammatory compounds called epoxyeicosatrienoic acids, produced in mice and humans.
  • Woychik also drew attention to the 2021 Papers of the Year . Out of almost 4,000 publications, institute leaders selected 35 for special recognition.

Accelerating biomedical advances

Bruce Tromberg, Ph.D. , director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), shared how breakthroughs at his agency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic could advance broader research across the National Institutes of Health.

Bruce Tromberg, Ph.D. Tromberg took the helm of NIBIB in January 2019. (Photo courtesy of NIBIB)
  • Woychik said NIEHS and NIBIB plan to collaborate. “We will explore utilizing NIBIB’s expertise in bioengineering to create new technologies for collecting environmental exposure data, integrating exposomics, and promoting precision environmental health ,” he noted.

Innovation in toxicology

Brian Berridge, D.V.M., Ph.D. , scientific director of the NIEHS Division of the National Toxicology Program (DNTP), provided an overview of the division’s recent efforts to spur greater innovation in toxicological research.

Pipette dropping sample into petri dish Better prediction of potential health hazards related to emerging environmental agents is an urgent challenge in the field of in toxicology, according to Berridge. (Photo courtesy of isak55 / Shutterstock.com)
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning are among the tools that DNTP scientists will harness to provide timely, human-relevant findings that advance public health, he noted.
  • “Innovation is deeply embedded in our organization,” said Berridge. “We have a unique role to play as an innovation incubator and engine in the field of toxicology.”

Oceans and human health, chemical threats

Anika Dzierlenga, Ph.D. In addition to her work with the OHH program, Dzierlenga oversees an extensive portfolio of NIEHS grants related to microbiome research. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

The NIEHS Oceans and Human Health (OHH) program was approved for continuation by council members.

The Chemical Threat Agent Inhalational Exposure Research Resource concept also was approved by council members.

  • Nadadur said the resource will expand researchers’ access to inhalational exposure facilities and enable in-depth exploration of chemicals threats that affect the lungs and other organs. The goals are to boost understanding of the pathophysiology of diverse chemicals of concern and to target development of medical countermeasures for numerous understudied agents, for use in the event of accidental or intentional exposure to humans.

Children’s environmental health

Kimberly Gray, Ph.D. Gray said the new centers build on the model provided by previous NIEHS and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Centers . (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

Kimberly Gray, Ph.D. , and Lindsey Martin, Ph.D. , from the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, announced the formation of six new Children’s Environmental Health Research Translation  centers. They were joined by former NAEHSC member Nsedu Obot Witherspoon , who is executive director of the Children’s Environmental Health Network (CEHN).

  • Goals are to expand scientific collaboration and develop new approaches for translating children’s environmental health research so that communities and stakeholders can make informed health decisions. The centers will apply the NIEHS translational research framework .
  • CEHN will serve as the coordinating hub for these centers, which will be housed at Emory University (https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/portfolio/?do=portfolio.grantDetail&grant_number=P2CES033430), Johns Hopkins University (https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/portfolio/?do=portfolio.grantDetail&grant_number=P2CES033415), New York University (https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/portfolio/?do=portfolio.grantDetail&grant_number=P2CES033423), Oregon State University (https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/portfolio/?do=portfolio.grantDetail&grant_number=P2CES033432), University of Pennsylvania (https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/portfolio/?do=portfolio.grantDetail&grant_number=P2CES033428), and University of Southern California (https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/portfolio/?do=portfolio.grantDetail&grant_number=P2CES033433).
  • One center will increase environmental health literacy among children by visually translating the environmental exposures that occur in Black communities in Atlanta. Linda McCauley, Ph.D. , from Emory University, and Sun Joo Ahn, Ph.D. , director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab at the University of Georgia, demonstrated how they will leverage virtual reality and other emerging media technologies to create kid-friendly learning environments. Their efforts will enable visualization of air pollution and other environmental factors.

The next NAEHSC meeting will be held June 7-8.

(Jennifer Harker, Ph.D., is a technical writer-editor in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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