Environmental health institute announces advances in genomics

April 16, 2003

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) today announced the completion of the first phase of the Environmental Genome Project to characterize genes that confer susceptibility to leading causes of death and illness, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. According to NIEHS Director Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., researchers have re-sequenced and cataloged 200 environmentally-responsive genes, identifying links to vascular disease, leukemia, and other conditions that affect the quality and length of life of many Americans.

"Under the Institute's leadership, the Environmental Genome Project has enabled the health science community to take a major step forward in understanding and potentially preventing environmentally-induced disease in susceptible individuals. We have great hope about our ability to map environmental factors in disease," said Dr. Olden.

As an example of the project's results to date, Dr. Olden pointed to a gene variation that will be useful in identifying individuals at increased risk for prostate cancer. "The revelation that [the] NKX3.1 [gene] is involved in the disease process highlights a specific set of DNA pathways to target for more effective therapies. That the polymorphism occurs similarly in black and white Americans, although blacks experience higher rates of death and illness, indicates the complex nature of gene-environment interactions and the need for further research," he said.

At the press conference held at 1:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 16 at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, Samuel Wilson, M.D., NIEHS Deputy Director, described the discoveries of DNA variations from the Environmental Genome Project. Leading genetic scientists from institutions around the country presented findings and answered questions about their research. (See list at end of release.)

"Gene-environment interactions contribute to many of the most common diseases affecting Americans. These results and case studies illustrate how the Environmental Genome Project will lead to improved disease prevention and health management," Dr. Olden said.

The Environmental Genome Project's key objective is to identify the genetic variations among individuals in the human genome that confer susceptibility to environmental agents. The first of a three-phase timeline has focused on polymorphic variants in a spectrum of 200 genes, mainly targeted to those that regulate DNA repair and the cell cycle. During Phase I, NIEHS also has developed a publicly accessible database of human DNA variation, initiated studies of human haplotypes, and established a centers program to develop mouse models for functional analysis of human environmentally-associated disease genes. In addition, Phase I activities included investigation of the ethical, legal and social issues related to Environmental Genome Project research and the development of technology and informatics to support the project.

The second phase of the project will include polymorphism discovery in genes regulating metabolism, signal transduction, and apoptosis. Altogether, the Environmental Genome Project will re-sequence 554 genes identified by the NIEHS scientific community. More genes may be added over time. NIEHS also plans targeted screening of certain populations that are at high-risk of specific diseases.

To observe the completion of the project's first phase and the 50th anniversary of the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the DNA double helix, NIEHS sponsored a half-day symposium that preceded the press conference. Researchers from across the country gathered at NIH to discuss developments in ongoing research related to the Environmental Genome Project and its implications for human health and disease. (For more information on the symposium: www.apps.niehs.nih.gov/odconfer/gxe/home.htm.)

The NIEHS events were linked to the 2-day major scientific symposium "From Double Helix to Human Sequence-and Beyond," hosted by the National Human Genome Research Institute on April 14-15, 2003. (For more information: www.genome.gov/about/april2003/.)
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Located in Research Triangle Park, NC, NIEHS is one of the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIEHS also is the home of the National Toxicology Program. NIEHS research focuses on reducing the burden of environmentally associated disease and dysfunction.

Press Conference Speakers:

NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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