By Ben Davis
Ahighly competitive and unique national grant has been awarded to Dr. Robyn Tanguay, a recognized international researcher in Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences. The eight-year grant will be applied to research aimed at predicting the biological impacts of chemicals by examining their chemical structure, which could potentially lead to reducing or eliminating the need for chemical testing on animals.
The $7M grant will fund research into what is known as “predictive toxicology” through an innovative new funding program from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Unlike traditional grants, this program gives top researchers carte blanche to follow their scientific instincts.
“The problem with specific projects is that they are tied to specific outcomes, and often limited in scope,” said Dr. Tanguay. “This funding program removes those limitations.”
NIEHS created the RIVER program (Revolutionizing Innovative, Visionary Environmental health Research) “to support people, not projects,” according to its program description. “The RIVER program rewards outstanding environmental health sciences researchers who demonstrate a broad vision and potential for continuing their impactful research with increased scientific flexibility, stability in funding, and administrative efficiency.”
“It gives scientists the creative freedom to explore big ideas,” Tanguay added.
For the past 20 years, she has pioneered the use of zebrafish in toxicology research, publishing 200+ papers and leading several large science teams from her 17,000 square foot lab known as SARL (Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory).
Zebrafish are ideal for toxicology research because they are vertebrates that grow incredibly fast—a tiny egg will become a recognizable fish in just 24 hours. This allows scientists to observe the biological effects of chemicals at various stages of development. 84 percent of the chemicals known to affect human development also effect zebrafish development in similar ways.
The problem is that chemical studies typically focus on one chemical at a time, which is impossibly slow-moving considering the scale and mixture of chemicals in the environment. Over 80,000 chemicals have been commercialized, and regulatory agencies have only tested the toxicity of about 1% of them. U.S. companies produce or import about 2,800 of these chemicals at rates exceeding one million pounds per year.
NIEHS identified predictive toxicology as a strategic goal for advancing environmental health science, and Tanguay believes that zebrafish modeling has enormous potential benefits to environmental health, as well as the economy. Bringing a new drug to market, for example, ranges from $161M to $2.8B, and multi-generational experiments with rodents can cost $1M or more and take years to complete.
“My group likes to solve problems,” said Dr. Tanguay. “It’s what we do.” Until now, the problems they have solved have been focused and specific. The RIVER award changes that.
Tanguay plans to ramp up testing on a massive scale—by exposing millions of embryonic zebrafish to a library of 10,000 chemicals commonly found in food additives, medicines, consumer products, and industrial chemicals. She will collaborate with data scientists to examine correlations among chemical structure, exposure, phenotype, behavior, and gene response.
This will not only provide insight into how the structure of a chemical determines its toxicity, but greatly reduce the time and cost of discovering how chemical networks are related to human disease.
“The zebrafish is the only vertebrate model in which it is technically and economically feasible to complete a predictive toxicological study of this depth and breadth,” said Dr. Tanguay.