|UNC awarded grant to improve understanding of chemical effects on environment, health|
|Wednesday, June 25, 2008|
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health a $3.4 million grant to help strengthen the school’s research portfolio in computational toxicology and bioinformatics.
Computational toxicology is a branch of environmental health sciences that applies powerful mathematical and computer models to predict adverse effects of drugs and environmental chemicals, and better understand the ways they might harm people’s health and the environment.
This relatively young discipline offers the possibility that scientists might be able to develop a much better understanding of the risks posed by chemicals released into the environment, and to uncover the genetic basis for why individuals sometimes respond differently to chemicals.
The four-year grant will go toward the creation of the Carolina Center for Computational Toxicology (http://comptox.unc.edu). The center will advance the field of computational toxicology by developing new methods and computational tools, as well as through inter-disciplinary collaborative efforts within UNC and with other environmental health science researchers.
“We are delighted to receive this highly competitive award,” said Ivan Rusyn, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering in the School of Public Health, associate director of the curriculum in toxicology in the School of Medicine and principle investigator of the project. “The UNC School of Public Health is a world leader in many areas of science that improve the health of people in North Carolina and around the world, and the new center will strengthen our capacity for understanding and predicting the inter-individual differences in risk from environmental exposures.”
According to Rusyn, the number of chemicals used in commerce and consumer products is increasing exponentially every year, and it is estimated that more than 30,000 chemical compounds are being currently manufactured in appreciable quantities in industrially developed countries.
“While many of these have been tested extensively for their safety to humans and the environment, the ability of regulatory agencies to reach unequivocal conclusions regarding potential risks is limited,” he said. “Our understanding of the mechanisms of the potential harmful effects of environmental agents is improving, but much needs to be done to develop rapid, efficient and cheap ways to screen through hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals.”
Rusyn said computational toxicology employs new developments in technology that have created unique opportunities to both dramatically speed-up safety screening and to handle the vast amounts of data that overwhelm established analytical methods.
“The mathematical tools that have been used traditionally by the regulators to decide which chemicals are safe are useful, but they can not be scaled-up to meet current challenges in toxicology,” Rusyn said. “The pace of discoveries in biology has accelerated dramatically in the past five to 10 years and new technologies now produce invaluable data that can dramatically improve ways we test the safety of novel and existing compounds.
“Close cooperation between scientific disciplines and researchers at UNC offers great advantages for ‘outside-of-the-box’ thinking and this new center is an excellent example of how experts in multiple areas can join forces to tackle new challenges,” he said.
The center will develop and publish new state-of-the-art computer-based models and tools, which will be widely disseminated to the risk assessment community and investigative toxicologists. Rusyn said the synthesis of data from a variety of sources will move the field of computational toxicology from a hypothesis-driven science toward a predictive science.