5 Questions With…
Bill Dunty, Ph.D. NIAAA FASD Research Coordinator and Program Director, Division of Metabolism and Health Effects (DMHE)
How would you describe your portfolio of projects in DMHE?
My grant portfolio includes research on the health consequences of prenatal alcohol exposure. These studies include basic research on the harmful effects of prenatal alcohol exposure as well as clinical studies of individuals with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or FASD. FASD is an umbrella term for a range of physical, cognitive, and behavioral disorders caused by prenatal alcohol exposure that appear at any time during childhood and last a lifetime.
I also serve as the Project Scientist for the NIAAA-supported Collaborative Initiative on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders,or CIFASD, a multidisciplinary consortium of projects to enhance diagnoses of FASD at different stages of the lifespan based on biological, physical, and behavioral assessments and to improve outcomes in individuals with FASD. Prior to becoming NIAAA’s FASD Research Coordinator in 2018, I also managed grants related to alcohol biosensors and alcohol-associated carcinogenesis.
You’re a member of the Executive Committee of the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (ICCFASD). What is NIAAA’s role in ICCFASD?
ICCFASD fosters improved communication and collaboration among disciplines and federal agencies that address a wide range of issues related to prenatal alcohol exposure. In 1996, following recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, Congress charged NIAAA with chairing ICCFASD, which currently comprises agencies across the federal government. This collaboration across agencies is important because the responsibility for addressing the many issues relevant to FASD transcends the mission and resources of any single agency or program. ICCFASD also interacts with researchers, clinicians, professional associations, advocacy organizations, and the general public, with the goals of increasing awareness of FASD, improving education for professionals and others who interact with individuals affected by FASD, and promoting the implementation of evidence-based approaches to address the needs of children and adults who live with FASD and their families.
Today, NIAAA continues to sponsor ICCFASD and our Deputy Director, Dr. Patricia Powell, serves as the ICCFASD Chair. As part of the committee, our Institute generates and disseminates basic, translational, and clinical research findings on FASD. My role as NIAAA’s FASD Research Coordinator is to provide updates on NIAAA activities in this area, exchange information, and advance high-priority efforts identified by the committee.
What are some noteworthy recent advances in FASD research?
Identifying individuals with FASD remains a challenge, given that most children with prenatal alcohol exposure do not meet the diagnostic criteria for full-blown fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) but nevertheless possess significant neurobehavioral deficits and associated secondary disabilities. Over the past few years, NIAAA-funded investigators have taken great strides to improve the capabilities in clinical recognition of FASD. Research in this area includes improving FAS/FASD facial recognition through 3-dimensional (3D) photography and computer analyses among individuals across different age groups and racial/ethnic backgrounds, and refining neurobehavioral-based screening tools for pediatricians and psychologists to better identify children exposed to alcohol prenatally.
Another key challenge facing clinicians is the ability to recognize alcohol consumption during pregnancy and identify prenatal alcohol exposure among newborns. To address this need, NIAAA-supported researchers are exploring the use of novel methodologies such as 3D fetal ultrasound, blood-based biomarkers, and physiological measures to improve earlier identification. Although FASD lasts a lifetime, earlier identification of infants and very young children affected by prenatal alcohol exposure may increase the effectiveness of intervention strategies to improve a child’s development.
What are some of the most promising areas for clinical breakthroughs in FASD research on the horizon?
Two promising areas come to mind. The first area focuses on the development of interventions to help individuals affected by prenatal alcohol exposure. Over the last 10 years, our largest investment in this area has supported basic and clinical research exploring the efficacy of choline supplementation as a nutritional intervention for FASD. Positive benefits have been reported on growth and memory performance among infants born to women who receive choline during pregnancy. Most recently, researchers report that giving supplements of choline to 2- to-5-year-old children who were exposed to alcohol before birth improves aspects of cognition and behavior assessed at 4 years post-treatment.
A second area is emerging research on how prenatal alcohol exposure may also increase the risk for chronic diseases and health conditions later in adulthood. This area of research barely existed in the alcohol field 7 to 8 years ago. NIAAA-funded investigators in our CIFASD consortium are currently conducting a health survey of adults with known alcohol exposure or an FASD diagnosis to help establish the natural history of these disorders in this vulnerable population. The ability of alcohol to reprogram fetal physiology and enhance disease risk later in life represents an underappreciated public health concern. Future findings in this area may be critical in optimizing strategies for disease prevention among individuals across the spectrum of FASD.
Outside of work, people say you’re an accomplished photographer. In fact, some of your photography has adorned the walls of the NIAAA workplace. How did that get started?
Although I’ve had a professional-grade camera for many years, it wasn’t until 2015, when I took a series of introductory digital photography courses, that I learned how to use it and began to appreciate the principles of photography. Since then, my interests have shifted from taking pictures of my kids playing sports to landscapes and wildlife photography, and now to candid shots. Currently, I volunteer as a photographer for the Indy Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization that transports military veterans to visit their national memorials in Washington, D.C. In capturing moments of emotion, I can convey a sense of their service and sacrifice to their family members back home in Indiana who cannot travel with them.