Development of novel in vivo models for toxicology was showcased at the annual meeting of the North Carolina chapter of the Society of Toxicology (NCSOT), Oct. 30 at NIEHS. Four plenary speakers explored strategies for overcoming challenges that prevent widespread use of these models, and students and trainees presented posters and talks.
Several National Toxicology Program (NTP) scientists served on the planning committee, including NCSOT President Erik Tokar, Ph.D.; Secretary Georgia Roberts, Ph.D.; and Postdoctoral Representative Kelly Shipkowski, Ph.D.
NCSOT Vice President Kymberly Gowdy, Ph.D., said this year’s theme was chosen to drive home the message that in toxicology, the gold standard of rodent models is changing. “We wanted to highlight innovative research by cutting-edge investigators that would allow the attendees to explore strengths and limitations of these alternative models,” she explained. Gowdy is from East Carolina University and led the selection of the theme and speakers.
Creativity turns limitations into strengths
Zebrafish provide advantages when studying adult consequences of developmental, or early life, exposures, according to plenary speaker Robert Tanguay, Ph.D., from Oregon State University. As a zebrafish pioneer, he reflected on the last couple of decades and expressed encouragement at progress in the field. “When you’re going against dogma in any way, there’s resistance,” he said. “It puts a lot of additional responsibility on scientists who are trying to develop these alternative models.”
Duke University Professor Joel Meyers, Ph.D., discussed how Caenorhabditis elegans, like all models, has strengths and limitations. “We should all do our best to use [these models] in a complementary fashion,” he stressed. In Meyers’ research, that means differentiating true limitations, such as lung development, from differences that can be exploited and turned into strengths unique to the model.
Gerald LeBlanc, from North Carolina State University (NCSU), used this approach in his study of daphnids. Unlike humans, daphnids switch between asexual and sexual reproduction. However, the dependence of that switch on the environment allows his research group to study hormonal control of sex determination.
The final speaker, John Hamm, Ph.D., from Integrated Laboratory Systems in Research Triangle Park, said collaboration among laboratories could increase use of new models. He described an NTP initiative, the Systematic Evaluation of the Application of Zebrafish in Toxicology (SEAZIT). With this program, NTP aims to provide a scientific basis for deciding on further routine use of zebrafish in toxicological evaluations, Hamm explained.
By assembling an atlas of characteristics measured in zebrafish, SEAZIT researchers hope to provide diagnostic material to help other scientists distinguish between abnormal and normal data. It will also help provide harmonization for the community of researchers who study zebrafish.
Inspiring the next generation of toxicologists
Trainee growth is a high priority for NCSOT, which includes four slots on its council for postdocs and graduate students. A position for an undergraduate representative was added this year.
“We’re trying to reach out and get more undergrads involved, informed, and participating in, not just NCSOT and SOT, but in toxicology in general,” explained Kim Gowdy. This initiative is carried out, in part, with an NCSOT-sponsored undergraduate travel award.
A focus on the next generation extended to the annual meetings.
- A career breakfast featured professionals representing academia, government, and industry.
- Graduate students were invited to give presentations.
- The afternoon poster session provided trainees the opportunity to present their current research and to network with peers and local professionals. Participants represented the whole spectrum of training stages, including 15 postdocs, 20 graduate students, and 10 undergraduate students.
- Awards highlighted outstanding contributions, providing another avenue of recognition (see sidebar).
(Anika Dzierlenga, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research Training Award fellow in the NIEHS Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology Group.)