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NIH 1998 Almanac/The Organization/NIEHS/      

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences : Major Programs


Protecting the general health of Americans and preventing environmentally related diseases are recognized government responsibilities. The NIEHS through its research programs is providing a health science base for prevention and control activities. In doing this, the institute focuses not on specific body organs or diseases but on agents and processes--the ways and means through which man’s health can be adversely affected by chemical and physical agents in the environment.

Population expansion and growth of technology have increased environmental contamination problems. New forms of energy production, expanded uses of plastics and aerosols, and greater development of the chemical industry pose the problem of releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. Recent experiences with asbestos, mercury, vinyl chloride, bischloromethyl ether, methyl butyl ketone, sulfuric acid mist, polychlorinated and polybrominated biphenyls, kepone, dioxins, methylisocy-anate, and chlorophenol indicate these compounds are not theoretical threats but real causes of illness and death.

The institute consists of the Divisions of Intramural Research; Extramural Research and Training; and Toxicology Research and Testing.

The Division of Extramural Research and Training supports investigators at colleges, universities, and research foundations through individual research grants, program project grants and other support mechanisms. These research activities provide information essential to an understanding of the way in which human health is adversely affected by chemical, physical and other environmental factors. The breadth of the institute’s mission dictates a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving which involves major biological, chemical, and physical science disciplines.

The division develops priorities and funding levels to assure maximum utilization of available resources. It maintains an awareness of national research efforts and assesses the need for research and research training in environmental health and provides advisory support to the institute in the development of the research grant policy. Through this division, the institute supports basic and applied research on the consequences of the exposure of humans to potentially toxic or harmful agents in the environment.

For administrative purposes, the research is divided into: 1) biological response to environmental agents 2) applied toxicological research and testing 3) biometry and risk estimation and 4) resource and manpower development. Research and training may span one, several, or all program areas.

Environmental Health Sciences Centers. These centers provide core support to facilitate multidisciplinary research in environmental health problems. They fill critical needs in the national environmental health program that cannot be met by individual research grants or program project grants. Each center has a different thrust and problem orientation. Overall, they serve as national focal points and resources for research and manpower development in health problems related to air, water and food pollution occupational and industrial health and safety heavy metal toxicity agricultural chemical hazards and the relationships of environment to cancer, birth defects, behavioral anomalies, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and diseases of other organs.

Much of the research conducted by the centers, in addition to substantive contributions to preventive medicine, has served to clarify the scope of environmental health problems and future needs in this field.

Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Sciences Centers. MFBS centers foster multidisciplinary research on marine and freshwater organisms in the study of mechanisms of toxicity of environmental agents, as models for human diseases and disorders resulting from exposure to environmental toxicants.

Research Manpower Development Programs. Research manpower development programs support pre- and postdoctoral training in toxicology, pathology, mutagenesis, and epidemiology and biostatistics as they pertain to the environment. Three mechanisms are used to fund training: 1) institutional awards for pre- and postdoctoral trainees (training programs), 2) individual awards for postdoctoral fellows only (fellowship awards), and 3) senior fellowship awards to support training for new research oriented physician-researchers to enhance the teaching of environmental and occupational medicine. The division uses the environmental/occupational medicine academic award for curriculum and institutional resource development.

The Superfund Basic Research Program is university-based basic research supported by NIEHS as part of the 1986 Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act. It combines basic research in the fields of ecology, engineering, and hydrogeology into a core program of biomedical research to provide a broader and more detailed body of scientific information to be used in decisionmaking related to the management of hazardous substances.

The Division of Intramural Research (DIR) plans and conducts basic, applied, and clinical research directed toward increasing fundamental knowledge of environmentally related diseases and disorders. Broad multidisciplinary research approaches are used including basic mechanistic studies at the cellular and molecular level, applied toxicology testing, and clinical and epidemiology studies. Intramural scientists address such complex research issues as genetic susceptibility, receptor mediated pathobiol-ogy, differentiation and development, signal transduction, environmental regulation of cell proliferation and cell death, environmental carcinogenesis and mutagenesis, and environmental epidemiology.

These research endeavors, in turn, support specific biomedical and clinical program interests of the institute such as environmental contributions to aging and age-related diseases and conditions (e.g., neurodegener-ative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, osteoporosis, cancer of the breast, prostate, endometrium and lung), environmental factors and respiratory disease (e.g., asthma and respiratory fibrosis), environmental contribution to reproductive and developmental disorders (e.g., infertility, abnormal growth and development, reproductive senescence), and how environmental factors interact with proteins and other cellular responses (e.g., abnormal hormonal influences and structures of critical cellular molecules that are targets of environmental factors).

The DIR pursues its scientific goals principally through its laboratories and branches in three scientific programs: the Environmental Biology and Medicine Program, the Environmental Carcinogenesis Program, and the Environmental Toxicology Program. In addition, a number of interdisciplinary program projects, clinical studies and international collaborative research projects have been established to address high priority research areas.


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