Biomarkers in Human Health Hazard Evaluation

By Jason Fritz

The annual conference of the Society of Toxicology (SOT 2012), attended by many of my colleagues from EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System program, is an excellent venue for scientists of all kinds to come together and discuss the latest and greatest advances in human health effects research.

For me, it was an opportunity to take a mental breath and place my focused efforts into the broader context of lifetime health management and disease prevention.

I’ve always been mechanically inclined, so I try to consider how any particular cog fits into the overall machine: specifically, how could a cog “broken” by toxic exposure in  one organ  foreshadow adverse responses in a distant location, or in the distant future?  Or both?

I particularly enjoyed listening to Leroy Hood, from the Institute for Systems Biology, present a paradigm shift in healthcare, away from today’s diagnose-treat-release medicine and toward personalized health management and disease prevention.  He proposed developing biomarkers in blood that could be used as “fingerprints” throughout the life of an individual to not only foretell impending disease, but define the cause so that intervention could be designed prophylactically for that person.

The implications of these biomarkers for the future of human health and hazard characterization are tremendous.

Like the addition of iodine in table salt to reverse the U.S. goiter epidemic of the 20th century, this could mean more dietary modification and less pharmaceutical administration, but on an individual, not population, basis.  This would truly be personalized medicine, but with a more predictive application that could simultaneously generate positive repercussions for entire populations.

The IRIS program is charged with developing toxicity values that can be used by risk managers to protect people against a lifetime of exposure to the individual components in an increasingly complex environment.  With biomarkers like these, we could predict the effects of toxin exposure in specific people, instead of an “average” person, and at early stages that are much more likely to be reversible.

With big picture ideas like this to put our health protective efforts into context, SOT 2012 was an inspiring success.

About the Author: Toxicologist Jason Fritz joined the EPA in 2011.  He has traveled some, and wishes to travel more: if, in his travels, he meets a man meditating under a Bodhi tree, he will ask for a spaceship and a pony