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NHGRI Launches Social and Behavioral Research Branch

Division of Intramural Research Attracts Duke Researcher
To Spearhead Trans-NIH Center on Social and Behavioral Research

BETHESDA, Md., Dec. 4, 2003 - The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) announced today the formation of a new branch - the Social and Behavioral Research Branch (SBRB) - within its Division of Intramural Research (DIR). The new branch will develop cutting-edge approaches to translating the discoveries from the recently completed Human Genome Project into interventions for health promotion and disease prevention, and for counseling patients and families dealing with the impact of devastating genetic disorders. The SBRB also will investigate the complex social, ethical and public policy impact of genomic research.

Eric D. Green, M.D., Ph.D., NHGRI's scientific director and director of the Division of Intramural Research, said the launch of this new branch is part of the natural evolution of the division.

"We have long recognized the importance of social and behavioral research as it pertains to advances in genetics and genomics," said Dr. Green. "Now that we are about to embark on translating the information from the Human Genome Project into research on better ways to prevent and manage human illnesses, the time is appropriate for this important area to have its own dedicated branch."

To head the new DIR branch, NHGRI recruited a prominent behavioral epidemiologist from Duke University, Colleen McBride, Ph.D. As director of the Cancer Prevention, Detection and Control Research Program at Duke, Dr. McBride's work focused on developing and evaluating population-based interventions directed at smoking cessation and identifying "teachable moments" for changing behaviors that put people at increased risk for developing disease. Dr. McBride joined the Duke program in 1995 and began serving as the director in 1997.

Dr. McBride, who received her doctorate in behavioral epidemiology from the University of Minnesota in 1990, also has interests in health behavior change interventions in community and health care settings and in using risk communications to motivate behavioral change. She said she is excited about the challenges and opportunities presented by advances in human genomic discoveries. Starting this new research branch within NHGRI, she said, has involved extensive planning and discussion with experts from around the country.

"This is an exciting time for social and behavioral researchers who in the coming years will be responsible for translating discoveries from genome research into medical care and public health interventions," said Dr. McBride. "The research landscape is wide open and research programs like SBRB will have unprecedented opportunities to do truly innovative research. I and my colleagues around the country give kudos to NHGRI for its forward thinking in acknowledging the centrality of social and behavioral science."

According to Dr. McBride, the SBRB's research portfolio will encompass four conceptual domains:

  • Testing communications strategies aimed at relaying an individual's risk for developing a genetic condition.
  • Developing and evaluating interventions aimed at reducing genetically susceptible individuals' risk of acquiring a disease.
  • Translating genomic discoveries to clinical practice.
  • Understanding the social, ethical and policy implications of genomic research.

There will be a number of research groups within the SBRB. They include a behavioral genetics unit; a health communications unit; a genetic counseling service unit; a health promotion research section that includes a unit for disseminating counseling research methods; a community genetics research unit; and an ethics and social policy unit that includes research ethics. In addition, there will be several cross-cutting themes addressed by researchers in the new branch, including the implications of genomic discoveries and research for health disparities, the ethical and legal implications, and strategies for information dissemination to medical and other communities.

In addition to heading the new NHGRI branch, Dr. McBride also will spearhead the development of a trans-institute Social & Behavioral Science Center (SBSC) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The SBSC will be designed to hasten the progress of behavioral and social science research among participating NIH intramural research programs. A cadre of social and behavioral scientists from various NIH institutes and disciplines - including experimental and clinical psychologists, sociologists, geneticists, public health experts, ethicists, decision scientists, community health professionals, informaticists and health communications specialists - will be housed together in the new center. Although many NIH institutes sponsor social and behavioral research through their external, or extramural, grants-making divisions, the SBSC will bring a new focus to this type of research among the intramural research community.

The trans-NIH SBRC will house the complete staff of NHGRI's new SBRB as well as investigators and staff from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR). And because the SBSC is designed to be truly collaborative, faculty and staff from the participating institutes will be intermixed, with offices configured to maximize cross-institute interactions.

"Many perspectives will be needed to translate human genome discoveries into interventions that can address public health problems such as obesity," said Dr. McBride. "Having a group of social and behavioral scientists that cross the institutes of NIH in shared space is a new way of doing business that - in my mind - will enable the kinds of ongoing conversations and collaborations that are needed to encourage health research innovation."

NHGRI Director, Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., agreed that the creation of the SBSC, which is slated to open in January 2005, will provide a unique resource for NIH intramural investigators.

"This new center will offer the best of all worlds to NIH intramural research programs," explained Dr. Collins. "It will enable sophisticated and rigorous cognitive and behavioral measurement techniques, innovative intervention development and testing, and state-of-the-art training in research methodologies. These kinds of infrastructure elements do not currently exist at any of the NIH institutes, including NHGRI."

The SBSC will achieve several important objectives for all of NIH's intramural research programs. First, it will enable NIH to rapidly respond to evolving research priorities because their proximity can facilitate collaborations among groups of social and behavioral researchers with multidisciplinary perspectives. Second, it will create economies of scale by providing access to a shared infrastructure, including sophisticated cognitive and behavioral assessment technologies, statistical expertise, visiting scholars and trainees, and common library and meeting space. Third, it gives an identity and high visibility to social and behavioral research within the NIH intramural research program. And finally, it allows for interdisciplinary and cross-institute training and career development for intramural scientists who want to gain or sharpen their expertise in social and behavioral research.

According to Dr. Green, this trans-NIH initiative is indicative of the growing need for multidisciplinary approaches to address complex problems.

"This is yet another example where trans-institute initiatives can play an extremely important role in bringing together people from different institutes who are facing research questions," said Dr. Green. "By co-locating these individuals under one roof, it will allow them to share resources and approaches and ideas for developing innovative ways to address these complex issues. In addition, we are delighted to have recruited such a highly regarded behavioral and social scientist as Dr. McBride to head up our branch and provide critical leadership within the SBSC."

NHGRI is one of the 27 institutes and centers at NIH, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. Additional information about NHGRI can be found at its Web site, www.genome.gov.

Last updated: June 02, 2014