The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, headquartered in Research Triangle Park, N.C., has established a clinical research group at the Clinical Center, the research hospital of its parent agency, the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md.
The research group will work with NIEHS Director of Clinical Research Perry Blackshear, M.D., D.Phil., to continue studies on the cause and treatment of the autoimmune disease myositis and to initiate new investigations into the role of genetics and the environment in the development of other autoimmune diseases.
Myositis is a chronic, incurable, potentially fatal disease of children and adults and is thought to be triggered in genetically predisposed individuals after exposure to certain environmental agents. It is an autoimmune disorder that results in inflammation and weakness of muscles throughout the body, including those that function in breathing and digestion, and sometimes affects the heart muscle itself.
It can cause death by asphyxiation and by other means. It is estimated that there are at least 30,000 cases in the U.S., although myositis, like other autoimmune diseases, is often under-diagnosed. Symptoms include muscle weakness and pain, and environmental triggers may include certain drugs or infections, and even sunlight.
The group will expand its work to study other autoimmune diseases with suspected environmental components which could include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, scleroderma, and autoimmune thyroid disease, as well as other environmentally triggered disorders. They will also act as a liaison to clinical studies for NIEHS basic researchers and serve as a resource for recruiting subjects to a variety of investigations being planned at NIEHS.
"Members of the group will work in collaboration with their colleagues at the NIEHS campus in North Carolina and those in other Institutes at the Clinical Center at NIH," Dr. Blackshear said. "We feel that the environmental health sciences have matured to the point where they merit a presence at the Clinical Center."
Previously, NIEHS has pursued clinical research through grants, contracts and collaborations with private, city or academic hospitals, often with facilities nearby in North Carolina, and those efforts will continue. The Institute's Epidemiology Branch is among those with decades of groundbreaking research to its credit. NIEHS was established in North Carolina in 1966, first as the NIH Division of Environmental Health Sciences, and was elevated to Institute status in 1969.
Heading the NIEHS Environmental Autoimmunity Group will be Frederick W. Miller, M.D., Ph.D., assisted by Lisa G. Rider, M.D., whose research interests include rheumatic diseases in children. Researcher Terrance P. O'Hanlon, Ph.D., and postdoctoral fellow Ejaz A. Shamin, M.D., will join them. The group plans to expand as the research program develops. The four current members join NIEHS from the Food and Drug Administration, where they are temporarily located until May.
NIEHS Director Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., emphasized the benefits for public health in the establishment of the Environmental Autoimmunity Group. "This research aims directly at a better understanding of environmental diseases, better diagnosis and treatment for patients, and better concepts for prevention of disease in the first place."
The new research group begins its work in the existing facilities of the Warren Grant Magnuson Clinical Center, where most patients will be seen on an out-patient basis, but ward beds will be available as needed. Patients are accepted into research protocols at the Clinical Center through referrals by their physicians. Looking ahead, NIEHS has reserved offices and clinics in the new Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center, an 850,000 square foot facility under construction on the NIH campus. That new research hospital facility is scheduled to be occupied in 2003.