Local tox meeting highlights futuristic science
The North Carolina Society of Toxicology (NCSOT) continued its honored tradition March 2, showcasing new developments at the leading edge of toxicology. On hand for the meeting were a number of trainees and scientists representing NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP), including NCSOT president-elect Danielle Carlin, Ph.D., a health scientist administrator in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, and vice president-elect Erik Tokar, Ph.D., an NTP toxicologist.
Held at the conference center of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, the event featured four presentations by trainee and student members of NCSOT, who conduct research supported by training grants from NIEHS, EPA, and others. In addition, two leading researchers from North Carolina universities presented keynote talks.
Following the theme of “Futuristic Science: The Future Is Now,” presenters looked ahead to development of innovative models and further refinements to alternative assessments in toxicology. The student talks highlighted the health effects of e-cigarettes, endocrine disruption, air pollution, and dioxins (see text box).
NCSOT meetings offer students and trainees the chance to share their work through talks and poster presentations, network with both junior and senior researchers, and learn about risk assessment and practical applications from leaders in the field.
Bioprinting human organoids
Following a keynote talk on bioengineered human organoids, by Wake Forest University regenerative medicine pioneer Anthony Atala, M.D., an audience member made a comment that captured the excitement of the presentations. “It seems that what was science fiction [just a few years ago] is now reality.”
Atala, whose talk explored “The Potential of Regenerative Medicine,” is a surgeon and a researcher in the area of regenerative medicine. His current work focuses on growing human cells, tissues, and organs for use in organ repair and replacement, toxicology studies, and drug development.
He and colleagues at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have produced what is arguably the most advanced 3-D in vitro model of human cardiac, liver, lung, and vascular organs, and they are making headway with models of another eight organs. The scientists have added to organs-on-a-chip research, by integrating the models into a system that mimics their interrelatedness in living organisms.
Despite impressive results, Atala cautioned that the kind of bioprinting they perform is expensive and has other limitations. “The big caveat, however, is that this is not a human,” he said.
A cheaper, easier toxicology model
The keynote by chemist Matthew Lockett, Ph.D., introduced the audience to a new approach to developing a 3-D model for studying the toxicology of tissues. Lockett’s lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Lineberger Cancer Center has created a model that is fast, easy, and inexpensive.
In his talk, “Using Paper-Based Scaffolds to Generate Tissue-Like Cultures,” Lockett described engineering functional proteins and protein model systems with inexpensive materials available at office supply stores. Key to the design is a very thin, translucent tissue paper. He told the audience that the process of making a cell plate from paper and running a test with his model can be mastered in less than a day and costs as little as $3.00 per plate.
Frustrated with repeated failures with expensive hydrogel-based tissue-on-a-chip models, Lockett solved several problems with his paper-platform model. “It turns out [that constructing hydrogel models] is mechanically very difficult,” he explained. “We make designs [on a paper platform] that meet our needs.”
(Eddy Ball, Ph.D., is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)