History of the NIEHS Center


The NYU Center was one of the first NIEHS-designated Centers of Excellence, established in 1963 when the Environmental Health Sciences Centers program was started, and it is one of the broadest of all of the EHS Centers. In fact, the first NYU Department of Environmental Medicine Center Director, Dr. Norton Nelson, was instrumental in establishing the NIEHS and the NIEHS Centers Program, as well as the NIEHS Superfund Basic Research Program (SBRP). NYU School of Medicine's Department of Environmental Medicine had its beginnings in 1947 under the leadership of Dr. Anthony J. Lanza, and was one of the earliest departments of its kind in the United States.  He was succeeded by Dr. Nelson in 1954, who had substantial influence in the development of the field of environmental health sciences in the USA.  In 1980, Dr. Norton Nelson retired as Center Director to be followed by Dr. Arthur Upton, previously the Director of the National Cancer Institute. 

Dr. Upton continued as Center Director and Chairman of the Department of Environmental Medicine until 1993 when, following a national search, Dr. Max Costa was selected to fill these roles. Our Department, with the assistance of the Center, has trained many students and post-docs who are now leading figures in the field of environmental health sciences, and we continue to train new leaders.  We have been and continue to be active in recruiting basic scientists and redirecting their research careers into the field of environmental health sciences. The Center is largely based within the Departments of Medicine and Environmental Medicine of New York University School of Medicine.  Today the Center has 41 active members.

The Center has made numerous outstanding and innovative research advances and discoveries.  For example, the role of phorbol esters in carcinogenesis was first described at our Center by Dr. Benjamin VanDuuren and Dr. Krystyna Frenkel was the first to show that formaldehyde irreversibly binds to DNA well before it was accepted as a human carcinogen; our Center was a pioneer in the field of inhalation toxicology and lung carcinogenesis under the early leadership of Drs. Sidney Laskin and Marvin Kuschner; Dr. Lippmann, in field studies of healthy children and adults engaged in normal outdoor active recreation, showed that ozone, in ambient air at concentrations as low as 60 parts per billion, produced decrements in lung function; Dr. Merrill Eisenbud who was an eminent member of our Center was also instrumental in the formation of the US EPA.

In the research area of carcinogenesis, as a result of scientific interactions engendered by the Program meetings of the  Center and supported by the center's molecular core, Drs. Klein and Costa discovered a novel mechanism for nickel carcinogenesis, which now appears to be more generally applicable to other epigenetic carcinogens. Specifically, nickel was found to inactivate senescence and induce immortality by inducing de novo 5-cytosine methylation in DNA.  This caused an alteration in the program of gene expression that was inherited in all subsequent cell generations.  This was the first study showing that a chemical carcinogen could inactivate a senescence/tumor suppressor gene by inducing de novo DNA methylation (Science 251:796, 1991) and offered an alternative mechanism to the mutational hypothesis of cancer causation. Today it is known that many human cancers have tumor suppressor genes inactivated by DNA methylation, and that epigenetic gene silencing is emerging as a mechanism for other human diseases besides cancer.  Recently, Drs. Haobin Chen and Costa were the first to measure the activity of an enzyme that specifically demethylates the epigenetic silencing mark on histone H3K9 dimethylation and this enzyme was found to be a major target for nickel ion inhibition resulting in global increases in H3K9 dimethylation in the genome (Mol Cell Biol 2006;26:3728-37, Chen et al; J Biol Chem. 2009 Dec 30. [Epub ahead of print]

Center researchers with pulmonary toxicology expertise have conducted numerous studies related to the WTC disaster.  NYU's NIEHS Center was the first to respond to the WTC disaster by collecting dust samples the day after the collapse of the Twin Towers. These samples and the efforts of NYU in this regard led to one of the first examples of inter-Center (Columbia University, Johns Hopkins, NYU, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey [UMDNJ], University of Rochester) collaborations involving the potential human health impact of the WTC dust. Today, Drs. Reibman and Rom continue to provide health care, outreach, and, with the support of the IHSFC, evaluate the adverse health effects of WTC dust in both residents and responders.

The NYU Department of Environmental Medicine and the Nelson Institute of Environmental Medicine have grown to become one of the world's pre-eminent research institutions that studies how environmental factors cause human disease. The NIEHS Center has been the scientific engine that allowed the growth of the Department and Institute within NYU, and in the next grant cycle we will utilize our basic science expertise in genomics and epigenetics, focusing that expertise on translational research to maximize public health relevance.