The annual meeting of the North Carolina Chapter of the Society of Toxicology ( NCSOT) explored how innovations in the stem cell and epigenetics fields could be applied to toxicological research. The Oct. 25 meeting, hosted by NCSOT at NIEHS, featured a career-panel breakfast for trainees, four plenary speakers, a networking lunch, and posters and presentations by trainees (see sidebar). About 135 attendees packed the auditorium for the fast-paced event.
NCSOT currently enjoys strong leadership from NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) scientists, as well as scientists from other North Carolina research organizations. The president, Danielle Carlin, Ph.D., is a health scientist administrator in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.
Opportunities for researchers and trainees
“NCSOT is a great way for toxicologists, both professionals and trainees, from different regions of North Carolina to get together every year to discuss cutting-edge toxicological research,” Carlin said. “It also benefits those researchers that may not be able to make it to the national Society of Toxicology meeting.”
Vice President Erik Tokar, Ph.D., leader of the NTP Stem Cell Toxicology Group, moderated the plenary session, “Stem Cells and Epigenetics: Methods and Applications for Toxicology.” Other NIEHS scientists who helped organize the meeting included councilor Chad Blystone, Ph.D., and postdoctoral representatives Georgia Roberts, Ph.D., and Kelly Shipkowski, Ph.D. All three are NTP toxicologists.
“It was great to see the scope of toxicological research presented by trainees throughout the meeting, from the engaging poster session to the well-delivered platform presentations,” added NTP toxicologist Cynthia Rider, Ph.D., who attended the meeting. “NCSOT is a wonderful opportunity for trainees to communicate their science.”
New frontiers in stem cell research
Karen Augustine-Rauch, Ph.D., from Bristol Myers-Squibb, laid the groundwork by surveying the current landscape of models for testing developmental toxicity, including effects on stem cells. She stressed that different models may answer the same research question from different angles. A new suite of tests developed by her team capitalizes on these differences to best predict developmental effects of the substance being tested.
Tokar said the work of Guang Hu, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Stem Cell Biology Group, fits into both themes of the meeting. Hu discussed the use of embryonic stem (ES) cells in environmental health research, especially as a tool to study developmental biology. “We can easily derive ES cells into different cellular lineages, and this initial differentiation closely mimics the in vivo developmental steps,” he said.
According to Hu, using these cells allows researchers to answer toxicology questions that are not easily addressed using animal models. ES cells can serve as a sort of population in a petri dish that are helpful for studying the effects of chemicals on cells of varied genetic backgrounds, Hu explained.
Environmental impacts on the epigenome
The final session addressed epigenetic modifications, which are changes that affect gene function without changing the underlying DNA. Identifying these changes can lead to new tools for hazard identification and risk assessment.
Shaun McCullough, Ph.D., from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Health and Environmental Effects Laboratory, discussed use of the epigenome to study environmental exposures, such as air pollution. “[The epigenome is a] transformative tool in adverse outcome pathway development … especially with respect to risk modification and risk mitigation,” he said.
North Carolina State University (NCSU) epidemiologist Cathrine Hoyo, Ph.D.., described a direct correlation between maternal lead exposure and epigenetic markers in children. She suggested that a more thorough understanding of epigenetic targets could lead to using epigenetic changes as biomarkers for chemical exposure and their associated effects.
(Anika Dzierlenga, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research and Training Award fellow in the NTP Toxicology Branch.)