What will the future of environmental health sciences look like in 2032 and beyond?
The National Academies Standing Committee on Using Emerging Science for Environmental Health Decisions (ESEHD), which is sponsored by the NIEHS, has brought together experts to explore new science, tools, and research methods that the biomedical community can use to integrate environmental health science into broader studies of human health.
Michelle Bennett, Ph.D., Senior Advisor for Strategic Initiatives at NIEHS, worked with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to organize the April 26-27 workshop titled “Towards a Future of Environmental Health Sciences.” The April event is part of a series of ESEHD forecast events.
“Skate where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been.” Bennett shared this quote from former hockey player Wayne Gretzky to explain why the workshop was developed.
“A lot of what we set out to do in this year is really based on that notion,” she said. “We have to think about where we should be in 10 years and skate to where we are now, and not just skate to where we are now.”
Each workshop panel was based on a futuristic scenario for experts to work together and discuss.
“This process helps you understand two things,” Bennett said. “It helps you understand where you need to be and what needs to happen to help you get there.”
Precision Environmental Hygiene
According to Rick Woychik, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS, one of the main goals for the next decade is to better understand the personal health risks associated with environmental exposures. This involves integrating exposomics, which is the study of all environmental exposures over the course of life, with the evaluation of an individual’s inherent biological sensitivity to these exposures.
Precision environmental health and precision medicine are seen as the future approaches to preventing disease in the first place and targeting personalized treatments, respectively.
“Ultimately, it’s about trying to identify the genetic, epigenetic, and biological signals that regulate how genes are expressed, and how these changes in gene expression can confer different sensitivities to environmental exposures. that promote health or cause disease,” Woychik said.
The exposomes framework, which aims to better understand the totality of exposures over a lifetime and the corresponding biological changes, is one such line of inquiry. Woychik announced that the NIEHS will sponsor a series of upcoming exposome workshops. Operationalizing the exposome and designing exposome experiments will be among the goals of this series.
Gary Miller, Ph.D.an exposome expert at Columbia University, chaired a panel that included Woychik and the director of the National Institute on AgingRichard Hodes, MD Hodes discussed the challenges that climate change poses for the aging population. The Climate Change and Health Initiativeanother major focus of the NIEHS and a presidential prioritywas presented by Woychik.
Several NIEHS grantees discussed solutions-based approaches to environmental toxics. They explored ways to integrate exposure data, genomics, and personal health information to advance precision environmental health and precision medicine.
- Brandon Pierce, Ph.D., from the University of Chicago, studies the effects of arsenic in drinking water in Bangladesh on the human genome. Pierce expanded and diversified this work by going beyond blood samples to include different tissue types. For example, he studies the effects of exposure on lung tissue.
- Aisha Dickerson, Ph.D., from Johns Hopkins University, studies the lifetime occupational exposures of parents and the risk of autism spectrum disorders in offspring. She noted that exposures can bioaccumulate in the human body over long periods of time, further complicating cumulative risk assessments.
- Julia Brody, Ph.D.of the Silent Spring Institute, discussed the Digital exposure report interface (DERBI), which is an interactive web tool that helps researchers share individualized chemical exposure data.
“The NIEHS Division of the National Toxicology Program (DNTP), under the leadership of Brian Berridge, DVM, Ph.D., is focused on innovative research that will move toxicology to a more predictive science,” Woychik said.
The following are examples of current efforts in predictive toxicology.
The science that serves
Environmental justice resonated throughout the panel discussions of the two-day event.
Integrating intersectionality into environmental health science by exploring cumulative impact, risk, and resilience in communities requires community involvement, according to NIEHS grantees Ami Zota, Ph.D.from Columbia University, and Sacoby Wilson, Ph.D.who directs the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health at the University of Maryland.
Translation and implementation practices are also essential, because as Wilson said, people want to see the results of science conducted in their communities.
“They want the science of solutions, the science of action, the science of change,” he told attendees.
(Jennifer Harker, Ph.D., is a technical writer-writer in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison at NIEHS.)