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Working with the Community to Determine Environmental Health

July 19, 2016

NIEHS director Linda Birnbaum spoke at the Alumni Center on the importance of PROTECT's first multi-country study Zika in Infants and Pregnancy (ZIP).


Source: News @ Northeastern

You can’t change your genes, but you can change your environment.”

So said Linda Birn­baum, director of the National Insti­tutes of Health’s National Insti­tute of Envi­ron­mental Health Sci­ences, during her forward-​​looking talk Monday morning at Northeastern.

Fac­ulty researchers and staff from North­eastern as well other area higher edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions filled the Alumni Center for Birnbaum’s talk, titled “Our Envi­ron­ment, Our Health,” to learn about the phi­los­ophy and strategy dri­ving the wide range of the NIEHS’s research and funding activities.

North­eastern, Birnham noted, is making a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the institute’s latest goals as part of the multi-​​country study Zika in Infants and Preg­nancy, or ZIP.

You cannot do envi­ron­mental health work if you don’t work with the com­mu­nity.
— Linda Birn­baum, director, National Insti­tute of Envi­ron­mental Health Sciences

North­eastern pro­fessor Akram N. Alshawabkeh and col­leagues recently received an NIEHS grant to col­lect data and bio­log­ical spec­i­mens from 450 preg­nant women in Puerto Rico—the first ZIP study site—to examine the risk of Zika infec­tion among babies of infected mothers and to assess the risk of birth defects and neu­rode­vel­op­ment dis­or­ders, such a micro­cephaly, among them. The funding sup­ple­ments an ear­lier NIEHS grant the team received for its Puerto Rico Test­site for Exploring Con­t­a­m­i­na­tion Threats, or PROTECT, pro­gram, directed by Alshawabkeh, which has been fol­lowing 200 of those preg­nant women to assess the con­tri­bu­tion of envi­ron­mental expo­sure to phtha­lates and chlo­ri­nated volatile organic con­t­a­m­i­nants, or cVOCs, to Puerto Rico’s high rate of preterm birth.

All told, the ZIP study, which is sup­ported by sev­eral orga­ni­za­tions, aims to enroll 10,000 women ages 15 years and older in sev­eral sites in Brazil, Colombia, Cen­tral America, and other areas where local trans­mis­sion of the virus is prevalent.

You cannot do envi­ron­mental health work if you don’t work with the com­mu­nity,” said Birn­baum, who lauded North­eastern, with its emphasis on inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research and prac­tice, for doing just that.

“A bad start…lasts a lifetime”

In her talk, Birn­baum stressed the NIEHS com­mit­ment to under­standing the inter­ac­tion of genetic sus­cep­ti­bility and envi­ron­mental expo­sure across the lifespan—from before con­cep­tion to old age, among males and females alike.

July 18, 2016 - BOSTON, MA. - Linda Birnbaum, Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Toxicology Program speaks during the Our Environmental, Our Health event in the Alumni Center at Northeastern University on July 18, 2016. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Linda Birn­baum, director of the National Insti­tute of Envi­ron­mental Health Sci­ences, dis­cusses “Our Envi­ron­ment, Our Health” at North­eastern. Photo by Matthew Modoono/​Northeastern University

She described agency pro­grams that look at the gene-​​environment dynamic in all its com­plexity, inves­ti­gating not only the effect of chem­i­cals such as per­sis­tent organic pol­lu­tants and Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, but also agents in food, the bac­teria in our guts and on our skin, and emo­tional states including stress and anxiety.

We live in a soup,” she said, noting that not only those in iden­ti­fied high-​​risk areas are affected. “Envi­ron­mental expo­sures are ubiquitous.”

The poten­tial out­comes from those exposures—based on epi­demi­o­log­ical studies with humans, with cells in the lab, and using animal models—run the gamut. Among them are obe­sity, dia­betes, meta­bolic dis­ease, asthma, con­gen­ital heart defects, behav­ioral dis­or­ders, breast cancer, and ADHD.

What can researchers and edu­ca­tors do to help? “Work with clin­i­cians in areas of pre­ven­tion,” she said, noting, for example, the high levels of lead found not just in the water in Flint, Michigan, but also in paint in many homes. Develop new tools for detec­tion and analysis, as well as outside-​​the-​​box animal models, such as zebrafish, to under­stand the genetic-​​environmental mech­a­nisms dri­ving the disorders.

Finally, in this time of low levels of funding, she said, work with staff at the NEIHS to fashion your research pro­posals. “Call us up. Let us guide you.” Con­sider Zika, she said. “There is some­thing going on with the virus and envi­ron­mental con­t­a­m­i­nants. We pro­vided sup­ple­mental funding to the PROTECT Center to ini­tiate ZIP in Puerto Rico.”