International FASD community honours Dr. Joanne Weinberg

Mars 8, 2017

Dr. Joanne Weinberg is a 2017 recipient of the Starfish Award acknowledging the great impact of her research on the lives of individuals with FASD.
Conferring of the Starfish Award is a traditional high point at the close of the International Conference on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, which meets every two years in Vancouver B.C. This year was the seventh biennial gathering, and drew, as in past years, more than 700 participants, including representatives of provincial governments and the justice system, researchers, health and mental health professionals, and families and individuals with FASD.  

I’m incredibly honoured by this award – it’s very emotional to be chosen,” said Dr. Weinberg, the day following the award ceremony. A Professor Emerita at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Weinberg’s focus within Kids Brain Health has been examining interactions between prenatal alcohol exposure and long-term changes in hormonal, immune and behavioral function that alter vulnerability or increase resilience to diseases later in life.
A respected member of the Canadian and international FASD community, Dr. Weinberg began working in the field in the late 1970s. “I began attending the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Study Group (FASDSG), which is part of the Research Society on Alcoholism meetings,” said Dr. Weinberg. The FASDSG is unusual, in that both basic scientists and clinicians attend and actively interact. “There is close collaboration within the group and we inform each other,” she added. “I’m doing basic science, but I have to know what the real clinical story is. The clinical problems drive the basic science research and in turn, the basic science findings inform the clinicians’ ability to treat their patients. ”
Also pivotal is Dr. Weinberg’s relationship with the people with FASD who are at the heart of all activity involved in the biennial international conferences. A health and mental health survey conducted by a trio of young adults with FASD to investigate conditions common among them is attracting national attention. Weinberg worked with researcher colleagues Ed Riley and Chris Loock, and Jan Lutke, a professional and senior FASD consultant, to support the development of the survey.

They could not be more proud of Emily Travis, Myles Himmelreich, and C.J. Lutke. “I was there as the three were interviewed by the CBC and attended their March 5 presentation at the International Conference,” Weinberg said. “The results of the survey are stunning. These young adults have health problems including autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, bone and joint issues, and endocrine disorders such as hypothyroidism and diabetes that are many times what one would expect for someone their age.

“We need to find out why this occurs,” she added. “We continue to investigate this increased vulnerability to diseases and disorders in our animal model of prenatal alcohol exposure, and are gaining insight into the mechanisms that underlie adverse health outcomes in people with FASD. We’re also involved in clinical research with the Collaborative Initiative on FASD to investigate immune function/inflammation, health and neurobehavioral outcomes, and how they may interact with each other, to understand better the issues that both children and adults with FASD face.

“I think we also have to educate the doctors so that they ask about health issues, believe what these individuals tell them about their symptoms, and intervene early to treat them appropriately,” concluded Dr. Weinberg. “This would make a big difference in their long-term health outcomes.”
Dr. Weinberg’s engagement with a few, with implications for many is emblematic of the story for which her award is named. In it, a man sees a boy walking along the beach, picking up starfish, and heaving them, one by one, into the water. The boy tells the man the starfish will die unless he throws them back to the sea before the sun rises.

The man tells the boy that there are hundreds of miles of beach and thousands of starfish and that he can’t possibly make a difference,” recounts Dr. Weinberg. “The boy turns to him after throwing yet another starfish into the sea, and says, ‘I made a difference to that one.’

“If you can make a difference, that would be a great thing”, she said. “If I feel I could make a difference with the work that I’ve done, that would be a real accomplishment.”