- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2000

Is there doom and gloom from some quarters this millennial Earth Day? Yes, perhaps. But from this quarter, on this Earth Day 2000, I think we have many reasons to be proud and optimistic. We have made remarkable progress in environmental remediation and pollution control since the celebration of the first Earth Day three decades ago.

The nation can be proud of its accomplishments. While we face continuing challenges, we can take heart that most of these remaining challenges are from low-dose exposures, not the high-dose exposures we traditionally faced. And further:

In the next few years, new chemical-testing methods will help make this a safer world. We are finding new and better ways to evaluate the safety of chemicals and other environmental agents. We should achieve greater precision clear-cut results in a short time frame and with lower costs.

At our National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, for example, we are learning how to review chemicals for safety by seeing how tiny clusters containing millions of cloned genes react to them. That is, we are beginning to build a library, or "signature database," of the gene-reaction patterns to all known toxicants, comparable to the FBI's "fingerprint database." With this, we will be able to screen the universe of chemicals to identify agents with these kinds of signature patterns, just as the FBI can identify a suspect from a population of 200 million with a high degree of certainty.

With all the chemicals in commerce, we can never satisfy testing requirements by two-year assays and other traditional testing methods. However, I am optimistic that we can solve research problems in the next few years that can provide the testing we would like.

Scientists are also making inroads regarding susceptibility the "Why me?" question. Physicians are commonly asked, "Why me, doctor?" That is, "Why do I have lung cancer [or, say, asbestosis] while my friends with similar exposures do not have the disease?"

Well, one answer may be differences in susceptibility. Genetic factors not only contribute to every human disease, they confer susceptibility or resistance, or influence interactions with environmental agents. We now know that small variations in gene structure can lead to changes in either gene expression or in the function of the gene products so that some of us at one end of the spectrum may be highly susceptible while at the other end people are highly resistant.

Efforts are already underway to identify the environmental susceptibility genes, and we expect this effort to be completed within a few years.

With both more precise information about individual susceptibility and more information about chemicals, health decision-making can be revolutionized.

Yes, this is an exciting time to be in environmental health research. There is a sense of urgency and opportunity, as well as enthusiasm that we are on the threshold of a new era. New technologies developed in pursuit of the human genome project are transforming environmental health research at a pace that could not have been foreseen on that first Earth Day or even just a decade ago by even the most astute visionary.

Kenneth Olden is director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a part of the National Institutes of Health.

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