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Relevance of the National Institutes of Health Roadmap initiatives to the field of environmental health.

Advances in biomedical research have been remarkable during the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, translation of the basic research discoveries into prevention and treatment strategies has been disappointing. In an attempt to make the process more efficient, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) unveiled a Roadmap initiative in October 2003. The overall objective of the Roadmap investments is to provide scientists with the technologies, human resources, and institutional infrastructures to enable the more efficient translation of basic science discoveries into practice. The NIH Roadmap is entirely consonant with the mission of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and presents numerous opportunities for environmental health scientists to expand current research studies and explore new directions.

In fact, the NIEHS has developed several new research programs over the past 6 years to achieve many of the same objectives targeted in the NIH Roadmap initiatives. These include the Environmental Genome Project in 1997; the Mouse Genetic Variation Mapping Initiative in 2000; the National Center for Toxicogenomics in 2001; and the Consortium Centers Program for Parkinson's Disease and Breast Cancer in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Multicenter clinical studies and community-based prevention/intervention research programs were also developed in the early 1990s to promote translation into practice. The NIEHS initiated these efforts because our investigators need access to the same tools, databases, and other resources required for the advancement of biomedical research, irrespective of the field of specialization.

Both the scientific opportunities and the scale and complexity of environmental health research have changed dramatically over the past decade. Simplistic models and reductionist approaches to the understanding of toxicity are giving way to more holistic or systems biological approaches that allow us to investigate multiple molecular events, pathways, and interactive networks simultaneously. In part, this evolution in scale and complexity is the result of a voluminous literature, derived from epidemiologic studies as well as human and animal experiments, which show that human health and disease are the result of complex interactions involving genetic, environmental, behavioral, and age-related factors often combined with random or stochastic events. Also, investments in the genomic sciences over the past 25 years have led to the development of new knowledge, resources, and powerful technologies for use in probing biological events at the molecular level. However, to untangle the complex interactions between genes, environment, and behavior to prevent human illness, we will need even more powerful tools--new databases and resources--and more robust institutional infrastructures to translate the science into the practice of public health and medicine.

One of the major challenges in understanding how genes, environment, and behavior interact to influence phenotype is to develop technologies and methodologic approaches to identify and characterize all of the functional molecules (e.g., RNA, protein, carbohydrate lipids, and metabolites) encoded by genomic DNA of humankind and other animals (e.g., mouse and rat) used as surrogate models in medical research. These technologies, reagents, and standards must be sensitive and reproducible enough to detect a single molecule per cell. Also, large-scale multi-institutional standardization studies are critical for developing robust databases and other resources, and for sharing and comparison of data between investigators and among laboratories. Although identification and characterization of the above "parts list" is a daunting challenge, it is just the first requirement; to prevent illness, we must understand how these parts work together in health and disease. Such complex problems cannot be addressed within the framework of a single field of knowledge, so this endeavor will require the creation of radically new approaches and technologies. New multidisciplinary teams that are capable of studying complex systems will have to be developed; this new way of approaching biomedical research is at the core of the NIH Roadmap.

Environmental health research is an important discipline that has had a huge impact on environmental health regulatory policies, public health and the practice of medicine, and the national economy. To continue to play an important role in the biomedical research enterprise, we must embrace new technologies and model systems, as described in the NIH Roadmap, to elucidate interactions between genes, proteins, and the environment. The time-honored way of determining which drug or environmental xenobiotics are toxic to humans (i.e., to expose hundreds of animals to the specific compound and observe them months or years later for adverse health outcomes) costs millions of dollars, requires hundreds of animals, provides little information with respect to mechanisms, and does not take into account genetic and age-related differences in the human population.

I am pleased that the environmental health sciences are experiencing a renaissance, being invigorated by efforts to apply "omic" technologies to gain a better understanding of the biological basis of toxicity of drugs and other environmental xenobiotics. I am proud of my involvement in the development of the NIH Roadmap Initiatives because I believe they represent the "right" investments to "enable or empower" medical researchers to make the next quantum leap in conquering the epidemic of chronic diseases. Their development and pursuit represent a welcomed and much needed departure from "business as usual." I expect that the proposed initiatives will accelerate both the pace of discoveries in the environmental health sciences and translation into practice.

Kenneth Olden

Director, NIEHS

National Institutes of Health

Department of Health and Human Services

Research Triangle Park, North Carolina

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Title Annotation:Editorial
Author:Olden, Kenneth
Publication:Environmental Health Perspectives
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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