Scientists who study how an individual’s genetic makeup may affect sensitivity to environmental chemicals were featured at the Genetics and Environmental Mutagenesis Society (GEMS) 35th annual fall meeting.
Members of the local scientific society gathered for the event Nov. 7 at the NC Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park (RTP), North Carolina.
Identifying susceptible individuals
The meeting was organized by incoming GEMS President Holly Mortensen, Ph.D., from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “I saw a need to address the state of the science in this area [genetic susceptibility], particularly due to recent changes in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TCSA), which require EPA to consider susceptible populations when conducting risk assessments,” she explained.
Speakers struck a common theme, emphasizing collaborations between federal, academic, and industrial sectors to identify genetically susceptible populations and create and validate scientific tools for the task. Topics included high-throughput screening of chemicals using genetically diverse human cell lines, and identifying susceptible populations using databases on human exposures to toxicants.
Keynote speaker Richard Paules, Ph.D., from the National Toxicology Program (NTP), focused on efforts to rapidly screen human cells for changes in gene expression, using the latest toxicogenomics technology.
Tala Henry, Ph.D., from the EPA Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics in Washington, D.C., gave a keynote talk on TSCA reform. “The GEMS meeting was a great opportunity to learn about the science that is being done to understand genetic influences on toxicological responses,” she said. “This information will help risk assessors identify susceptible subpopulations.”
Showcasing early career scientists
The short talks by trainees reflected the diversity of research conducted in the RTP area. Elizabeth Martin, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, described metabolism of arsenic in pregnant women. She also delivered the NIEHS Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award lecture earlier this year.
Ma Wan, M.D., Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow working with NIEHS researcher Douglas Bell, Ph.D., described the epigenetic effects of cigarette smoke.
The GEMS Best Talk Award went to Tara Catron, Ph.D., from EPA, who discussed how the microbiome of zebrafish can influence their responses to environmental chemicals. Her award is partially funded by the Environmental Mutagenesis and Genomics Society (EMGS). She will use it to attend the group’s 2018 Annual Meeting.
Connecting scientists in RTP
“GEMS has done a great job of getting more young investigators involved,” said Michelle Campbell, from NIEHS. She highlighted the Social Committee, website improvements, and increased communicating through LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. “It’s made a difference in the future of GEMS,” she said.
Janice Lee, Ph.D., from EPA, agreed. Lee added that board members support students by providing a means to present their work and to learn more about local research enterprises.
The importance of GEMS for local networking was underscored by Jessica Hartman, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University. “The value of the meeting is in the diversity of the science and being the right size to interact with people,” she said. “The people at this meeting are very approachable.”
(Stephanie Smith-Roe, Ph.D., is a toxicologist in the NTP Genetic Toxicology Group.)