Rapid Toxicity Test for Household, Industrial Compounds in the Works at Georgia

Multi-year testing methods have left the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with a list of 80,000 household and industrial compounds that need to be assessed to determine potential health risks.

The average American comes in contact with thousands of these chemicals each year. The biggest concern, though, is determining which of these compounds disrupt early fetal and infant brain development.

To help change the paradigm of how these chemicals are tested—and how rapidly the EPA receives results—the agency tapped an interdisciplinary group of researchers at the University of Georgia. The university is one of three institutions sharing a $3 million grant from the EPA to more quickly determine the physiological effects of environment chemicals on children and infants.

Principal investigator of the study is Dr. Steve Stice, professor and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Co-Investigators are Dr. Mary Alice Smith, associate professor, and Dr. Kun Lu, assistant professor, in the College of Public Health Department of Environmental Health Science, and Dr. Qun Zhao, associate professor of physics, in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Until now, determining the toxicity of each chemical could take almost two years. UGA’s $799,938 share of the grant will allow researchers, all members of the UGA Regenerative Biosciences Center, to modernize the current testing process using work they pioneered using undifferentiated cells.

“We hope to do a study in a dish that can be completed within a week so we’ll be able to speed up the process and make it less expensive and not have to use animals,” said Stice, who also directs the Center.

Because of the damaging presence of these toxicants, early interruptions in brain development can lead to a broad range of lifelong problems. With one in six children in the U.S. diagnosed with a developmental or cognitive disorder, “it is more important than ever to understand the potential toxicity in the chemicals that we come in contact with every day,” Stice said.

The methods used by the Regenerative Bioscience Center team will expand the number of chemicals that can be tested each year, reducing process time, effort and cost while also minimizing animal use.

“We will be using metabolomics for these stem cell-based toxicity tests,“ Lu said. “Essentially we want to see whether the metabolic activity of stem cells can tell us the toxicity of a chemical, especially in the early stages of neural cell development. With metabolomics, what you are trying to do is measure all the metabolites, every single one, so you can get a snap shot of the cellular activity. You can then use this snap shot as a biomarker to evaluate whether or not chemicals induce toxicity in stem cells.”

“This grant will span a wide range of disciplines to follow a toxin’s initial effects at the neural stem cells to how it affects people, potentially leading to uncovering environmental causes of autism. With EPA funding we can be a task force of a much needed solution,” said Stice.

The funding for the study is provided by the EPA under grant No. R835551 on “Human Neural Stem Cell Metabolomic, Cellular and Organ Level Adverse Outcome Pathway Relationships for Endocrine Active Compounds.” For more information on the grant, see https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncer_abstracts/index.cfm/fuseaction/display.abstractDetail/abstract/10209/report/0.

Original press release at UGA News Services. Additional coverage ASPPH Friday Letter.

Posted April 25, 2014.