Download the article.
For decades the field of clinical science has used systematic review methods to integrate research findings and present the results in a consistent and unbiased manner to support health-protective recommendations. An interdisciplinary team of clinical and environmental health scientists has now adopted principles of systematic review and applied them to the environmental health sciences in a framework called the Navigation Guide. In this issue of EHP a case study on the widespread environmental contaminant perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) puts the guide through its paces to test the process itself and to judge the strength and quality of evidence regarding the effects of PFOA on fetal growth.
Woodruff TJ, Sutton P. 2014. The Navigation Guide systematic review methodology: a rigorous and transparent method for translating environmental health science into better health outcomes. Environ Health Perspect 122:1007–1014; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1307175
Background: Synthesizing what is known about the environmental drivers of health is instrumental to taking prevention-oriented action. Methods of research synthesis commonly used in environmental health lag behind systematic review methods developed in the clinical sciences over the past 20 years.
Objectives: We sought to develop a proof of concept of the “Navigation Guide,” a systematic and transparent method of research synthesis in environmental health.
Discussion: The Navigation Guide methodology builds on best practices in research synthesis in evidence-based medicine and environmental health. Key points of departure from current methods of expert-based narrative review prevalent in environmental health include a prespecified protocol, standardized and transparent documentation including expert judgment, a comprehensive search strategy, assessment of “risk of bias,” and separation of the science from values and preferences. Key points of departure from evidence-based medicine include assigning a “moderate” quality rating to human observational studies and combining diverse evidence streams.
Conclusions: The Navigation Guide methodology is a systematic and rigorous approach to research synthesis that has been developed to reduce bias and maximize transparency in the evaluation of environmental health information. Although novel aspects of the method will require further development and validation, our findings demonstrated that improved methods of research synthesis under development at the National Toxicology Program and under consideration by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are fully achievable. The institutionalization of robust methods of systematic and transparent review would provide a concrete mechanism for linking science to timely action to prevent harm.
Johnson PI, Sutton P, Atchley DS, Koustas E, Lam J, Sen S, Robinson KA, Axelrad DA, Woodruff TJ. 2014. The Navigation Guide—evidence-based medicine meets environmental health: systematic review of human evidence for PFOA effects on fetal growth. Environ Health Perspect 122:1028–1039; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1307893
Background: The Navigation Guide methodology was developed to meet the need for a robust method of systematic and transparent research synthesis in environmental health science. We conducted a case study systematic review to support proof of concept of the method.
Objective: We applied the Navigation Guide systematic review methodology to determine whether developmental exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) affects fetal growth in humans.
Methods: We applied the first 3 steps of the Navigation Guide methodology to human epidemiological data: 1) specify the study question, 2) select the evidence, and 3) rate the quality and strength of the evidence. We developed a protocol, conducted a comprehensive search of the literature, and identified relevant studies using prespecified criteria. We evaluated each study for risk of bias and conducted meta-analyses on a subset of studies. We rated quality and strength of the entire body of human evidence.
Results: We identified 18 human studies that met our inclusion criteria, and 9 of these were combined through meta-analysis. Through meta-analysis, we estimated that a 1-ng/mL increase in serum or plasma PFOA was associated with a –18.9 g (95% CI: –29.8, –7.9) difference in birth weight. We concluded that the risk of bias across studies was low, and we assigned a “moderate” quality rating to the overall body of human evidence.
Conclusion: On the basis of this first application of the Navigation Guide systematic review methodology, we concluded that there is “sufficient” human evidence that developmental exposure to PFOA reduces fetal growth.
Koustas E, Lam J, Sutton P, Johnson PI, Atchley DS, Sen S, Robinson KA, Axelrad DA, Woodruff TJ. 2014. The Navigation Guide—evidence-based medicine meets environmental health: systematic review of nonhuman evidence for PFOA effects on fetal growth. Environ Health Perspect 122:1015–1027; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1307177
Background: In contrast to current methods of expert-based narrative review, the Navigation Guide is a systematic and transparent method for synthesizing environmental health research from multiple evidence streams. The Navigation Guide was developed to effectively and efficiently translate the available scientific evidence into timely prevention-oriented action.
Objectives: We applied the Navigation Guide systematic review method to answer the question “Does fetal developmental exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) or its salts affect fetal growth in animals ?” and to rate the strength of the experimental animal evidence.
Methods: We conducted a comprehensive search of the literature, applied prespecified criteria to the search results to identify relevant studies, extracted data from studies, obtained additional information from study authors, conducted meta-analyses, and rated the overall quality and strength of the evidence.
Results: Twenty-one studies met the inclusion criteria. From the meta-analysis of eight mouse gavage data sets, we estimated that exposure of pregnant mice to increasing concentrations of PFOA was associated with a change in mean pup birth weight of –0.023 g (95% CI: –0.029, –0.016) per 1-unit increase in dose (milligrams per kilogram body weight per day). The evidence, consisting of 15 mammalian and 6 nonmammalian studies, was rated as “moderate” and “low” quality, respectively.
Conclusion: Based on this first application of the Navigation Guide methodology, we found sufficient evidence that fetal developmental exposure to PFOA reduces fetal growth in animals.
Lam J, Koustas E, Sutton P, Johnson PI, Atchley DS, Sen S, Robinson KA, Axelrad DA, Woodruff TJ. 2014. The Navigation Guide—evidence-based medicine meets environmental health: integration of animal and human evidence for PFOA effects on fetal growth. Environ Health Perspect 122:1040–1051; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1307923
Background: The Navigation Guide is a novel systematic review method to synthesize scientific evidence and reach strength of evidence conclusions for environmental health decision making.
Objective: Our aim was to integrate scientific findings from human and nonhuman studies to determine the overall strength of evidence for the question “Does developmental exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) affect fetal growth in humans?”
Methods: We developed and applied prespecified criteria to systematically and transparently a) rate the quality of the scientific evidence as “high,” “moderate,” or “low”; b) rate the strength of the human and nonhuman evidence separately as “sufficient,” “limited,” “moderate,” or “evidence of lack of toxicity”; and c) integrate the strength of the human and nonhuman evidence ratings into a strength of the evidence conclusion.
Results: We identified 18 epidemiology studies and 21 animal toxicology studies relevant to our study question. We rated both the human and nonhuman mammalian evidence as “moderate” quality and “sufficient” strength. Integration of these evidence ratings produced a final strength of evidence rating in which review authors concluded that PFOA is “known to be toxic” to human reproduction and development based on sufficient evidence of decreased fetal growth in both human and nonhuman mammalian species.
Conclusion: We concluded that developmental exposure to PFOA adversely affects human health based on sufficient evidence of decreased fetal growth in both human and nonhuman mammalian species. The results of this case study demonstrate the application of a systematic and transparent methodology, via the Navigation Guide, for reaching strength of evidence conclusions in environmental health.