Northeastern University Recognized by NIEHS for Medical Research


Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, delivered a talk on July 18, 2016 at Northeastern University’s Alumni Center.

The lecture, “Our Environment, Our Health” was attended by researchers and teachers alike to know and understand the vision and mission underlying the different projects and activities under the NIEHS wing.

During her talk, Birnhaum mentioned the huge impact of Northeastern University’s studies as a part of the National Institutes of Health’s large study, Zika on Infants and Pregnancy (ZIP), which is a multi-country research that hopes to gather information from around 10,000 pregnant women.

It will start in Puerto Rico and will expand to other places like Brazil and Colombia.

“You can’t change your genes, but you can change your environment, said Birnhaum, facing Northeastern University’s faculty and staff.

Akram N. Alshawabkeh, NU’s professor of engineering, civil and environmental engineering, and the associate dean for research, led his colleagues to a study on 450 pregnant women in Puerto Rico.

They received a grant from NIEHS to continue and expand their research into the ZIP study in order to include more respondents and retrieve data from a larger population.

Before that, Alshawabkeh’s team had also received a grant for their Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Examination Threats (PROTECT) program, which focused on 200 pregnant women and how exposure to an environment with chemical and organic contaminants influence preterm birth.

Birnhaum stressed that the programs and studies conducted by NIEHS focus on how genetics and environment contribute or affect susceptibility to certain diseases or viruses.

These programs don’t only look at the effects of chemical contaminants, but also the genetic makeup, food agents, bacteria inside the human body, and current emotional states.

Birnhaum likened the human experience to living in a bubble or a soup, where everything around us affects our reception and reaction to certain bacteria or illness.

The NIEHS studies can shed light on mysteries surrounding other conditions like obesity, diabetes, asthma, cancer, and even behavioral disorders.

The NIEHS director also said that situations like high levels of lead in the waters of Flint, Michigan, can affect illnesses or risk to viruses, but how much?

There are not many studies that expand on such questions, which create a large gap in medical and academic research.

Birnhaum suggested that researchers work closely with clinicians in areas that are found to have medical issues or chemical contaminants.

She also stressed the importance of looking into the genetic-environmental relationship when investigating diseases.

New technology for analysis and identification are needed, as are “outside-the-box animal models like the zebrafish”, which, according to many scientists, make excellent research models.

There was a sad note that many researchers in the room considered, though –research funding was low, and some studies, in the present and future, might not make it past early stages because of lack of funds.

Birnhaum indicated that while it was not feasible to support all projects, the National Institutes of Health is always prepared to help researchers.

She told her audience to start developing their research proposals. “Call us up. Let us guide you.”

She talked some more about the Zika researches around the country and said that it was important, now more than ever, that studies dive into the biological and environmental aspects of diseases in order to create better treatment.

This can only be done by better studies and researches.

Rob Clark admin staff managing editor

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