Taking a Page from Nature’s Playbook: Innovation for Human Health

By Dustin Renwick

Illustration of lungsProtecting human health through chemical safety remains a priority for EPA, but it’s difficult and expensive to test all the 83,000 or so chemicals currently listed or registered for use.

That’s where innovation comes in. With new tools and models, EPA researchers aim to dramatically increase the pace of research and screening methods to provide the best information on how chemicals might affect us wherever we encounter them.

Researchers need to understand how chemicals affect the human body. One method of testing toxic effects of aerosols (chemicals and other pollutants in the air) uses human cells submerged in liquid at the bottom of a well plate. That means scientists have to capture pollutants and pipette them into the liquid medium to reach the cells for testing.

But human breathing takes place in a more dynamic environment. Our respiratory system operates with only a thin liquid layer of mucus separating lung cells from air.

Amy Wang, an EPA biologist, and her Pathfinder Innovation Project (PIP) team invented a system that mimics how our airway cells come in contact with air pollutants.

The system, which has progressed through several prototypes, can generate and control aerosols in multiple wells in one plate at the same time.

“The great advantage of this system is you expose the cells to aerosols in a way similar to the complex conditions in the human lungs,” Wang said.

The team’s invention has the potential to allow researchers to test multiple compounds in airborne mixtures, a scenario that more closely represents how people come in contact with chemicals outside a laboratory setting.

“We could take combustion emissions from an engine and expose cells directly at concentrations we choose,” Wang said. “The integrity of that emission would be maintained – all the vapors, all the gases, all the aerosols produced.”

Wang said the system helps eliminate variables that can sometimes hinder traditional testing that uses cells under a column of liquid. Additionally, the new system will allow scientists to run tests more rapidly.

Next-generation systems like the one Wang and her team created can produce enormous amounts of data. Any research EPA conducts depends on high-quality data, and EPA has released lots of it as part of an initiative called ToxCast.

You can use the interactive Chemical Safety for Sustainability Dashboards to view toxicity data for 1,800 chemicals.

And as part of the ToxCast project, we’ve launched a series of data challenges. If you want to help find new ways to use EPA data, check out the descriptions and sign up to submit your ideas. The current challenge is open until January 19, and we need ideas to help create a strategic framework for using EPA data.


About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.


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