Online Program

NIEHS: Looking forward to the next 50 years

Tuesday, November 3, 2015 : 5:10 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.

John Balbus, MD, MPH, NIEHS-WHO Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD

As NIEHS approaches its 50th anniversary since its creation, it is an opportune time to review some of its accomplishments and consider how its priorities have evolved over time in support of our mission to discover how environmental factors affects people in order to promote healthier lives.

Like other NIH Institutes, NIEHS provides global leadership for innovative research through a large extramural research program that supports academic investigators, and through a strong intramural research program comprised of eleven laboratories and branches.  Unlike other NIH Institutes, NIEHS supports several unique programs that transcend usual NIH structures, including the National Toxicology Program, conducted in partnership with FDA and NIOSH, the Superfund Research Program, and the Worker Training Program.

The NIEHS Strategic Plan, published in 2012, lays out a series of themes and goals that represent the priorities and strategic approaches of the Institute.  The six cross-cutting Strategic Themes are:

  • Fundamental Research
  • Exposure Research
  • Translational Science
  • Health Disparities and Global Environmental Health
  • Training and Education
  • Communications and Engagement

How have scientific advances changed the research priorities of NIEHS over the past decades?  Three examples are:

  1. There is greater understanding of subtle effects, including hormonal disruption, of low doses of chemical exposures.  Rather than testing animals in laboratories with high doses to demonstrate toxicity, there is an increasingly sophisticated array of in vitro and animal approaches to understand toxicity.
  2. A focus on mutagenesis and cancer as an outcome has given way to understanding epigenetics, changes in the modifications and binding proteins of genetic material that determine gene translation and can affect a wide array of diseases even across generations.
  3. Improved sensor technologies and enhanced abilities to measure multiple substances in small quantities of biological samples have revolutionized the assessment of environmental exposures.

In addition, emerging issues, like climate change and the environmental health consequences of natural disasters, developmental origins of health and disease, and exposure to complex mixtures have influenced Institute priorities.

To address these evolving priorities, NIEHS has initiated several major research programs.  These include major center funding programs on breast cancer and Parkinson’s disease, which have supplemented existing center programs on children’s environmental health and asthma.  Some of the priorities come together in programs like the Children’s Health Exposure Analysis Resource program, which combines our emphasis on exposure assessment with a longstanding priority on children as a vulnerable population.

The National Toxicology Program is helping forge improvements in toxicology in the United States and around the world, through support for projects like Tox21, which supports innovative approaches to laboratory testing of toxic substances, and the dissemination of effective methods of systematic review of environmental health literature.

The Institute’s vision to provide global leadership in environmental health is facilitated by its newly designated NIEHS-WHO Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences.  By establishing partnerships and collaboration with the WHO and other institutes and organizations around the world, the Collaborating Centre helps translate emerging NIEHS science on climate change, children’s environmental health, indoor air quality and electronic waste into effective action to protect people around the world.

Learning Areas:

Environmental health sciences

Learning Objectives:

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I am the Senior Advisor for Public Health to the Director of the NIEHS and I am responsible for representing the Institute to external stakeholders.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.