Pathfinder Innovation Project

A Prescription for a Healthier Environment

By Dustin Renwick

Many different colored pillsNext time you’re waiting at the doctor’s office, consider how what is prescribed there could also contribute to the health of the environment.

Christian Daughton, an EPA research scientist, does just that by looking at the connection between the examination room and the expansive beauty of the outdoors in his research paper, Lower-dose prescribing: Minimizing “side effects” of pharmaceuticals on society and the environment.

The paper is a result of his Pathfinder Innovation Project that explores the idea of considering the environment and the patient as one entity.

When someone ingests a drug, not all of it is absorbed. The human body excretes parts of that medication, including active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) that often end up in the sewers and eventually disperse into the environment.

The most common methods for reducing APIs in nature is by treating wastewater (remediation) and organizing take-back programs, where people in a community drop off unused medications for proper disposal. For example, National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day occurred in late October.

“My interest has long been on solving the upstream problem – minimizing the generation of waste rather than its more costly remediation,” Daughton says. “That aspect has long been discounted.”

Daughton is now directing his attention to identifying and reducing inefficiencies of pharmaceuticals in health care: how they are prescribed, dispensed, and ultimately used by the patients.

His research points to two major changes that could positively affect the types and quantities of APIs that infiltrate aquatic ecosystems.

First, doctors can focus on doses. Based on patient needs, physicians can prescribe lower doses of pharmaceuticals to prevent leftover drugs as well as decrease the excreted amounts. The strategy could keep the environment cleaner, reduce costs for patients and improve therapeutic outcomes.

“The idea isn’t to benefit environment at the expense of possibly jeopardizing the patient,” Daughton says. ”It’s a win-win for environment and health care.”

A second aspect of Daughton’s research involves tracking reliable data about which APIs are extensively metabolized by the body and which are excreted unchanged.

Imagine two similar drugs. The one that the human body thoroughly processes has what’s called an “environmentally favorable excretion profile,” and that drug is likely to do less damage to the local creek.

Unfortunately, that information isn’t easy to find.

“Excretion data submitted for regulatory approval purposes isn’t sufficiently comprehensive for examining the potential for environmental impact,” Daughton says. In other words, drug companies don’t need to scrutinize an API beyond what is relevant for human safety.

“That becomes a major stumbling block” to discovering which APIs could have negative environmental impacts.

As the topic of health care moves to the forefront of national discussions, Daughton’s work points to the environment as one missing component in those conversations.

“That’s where I get this expression – treating the environment and the patient as an interconnected whole.”

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Is there a virus in the water? A story of innovation

By Dustin Renwick

Adeno virus. Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Adeno virus. Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Innovation has two parts: the awe-striking changes that generate instant headlines and the long-developing back stories. Products and processes that alter our world don’t happen in a flash. They are the results of years of research and open-minded collaboration that eventually meet in a more famous eureka moment.

Remembering the innovation is easier than remembering the story behind it.

EPA microbiologist Jennifer Cashdollar and her Pathfinder Innovation Project team are working on a fundamental shift in how we test for pathogens in water.

Currently, researchers use two main methods to detect viruses in water samples: culture-based and molecular.

Culture-based tests rely on living cells. If a water sample causes the cell culture to die, there’s a good chance that the sample contains an infectious virus, Cashdollar says. But this testing can be slow, and you’ll have a hard time processing cell cultures in the field.

Molecular tests identify viral genetic signatures in the water—nucleic acids, more commonly known as DNA or RNA. Such tests are less expensive, and could fit in a hand-held device. However, the identification of nucleic acids doesn’t always mean that a potentially infectious virus is in the water.  Virus particles must be whole to be infectious, whereas fragments of floating DNA or RNA might register in the water samples but can’t affect humans.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can fill that gap between the culture and molecular methods,” Cashdollar says.

To do that, Cashdollar and her research partners are applying traditional techniques with an innovative twist.

If the team can show that traditional measurement techniques don’t allow nucleic acid fragments to pass through, any molecular signals in the final water samples would almost certainly originate from whole viral particles—which could be infectious because they’re in one piece.

The scientists have experimented with tap water so far, and they’ll soon test river water, a better real-world proxy. On the horizon, this work could lead to a field-ready device that not only gives the best of both detection methods, but also adheres to a classic story of innovation.

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Seeing Green (and Predicting It)

By Dustin Renwick

Thick mat of green algae at the shore of a lakeWhen you live near a coast, summer means beaches. A relaxing inland getaway often involves the cool waters of a lake.

Except when the shoreline turns green.

Sometimes a mat of algae clogs fishing lines. Other times, lake foam makes the swimming area appear as if someone poured in a few St. Patrick’s Day green beers.

Those algae serve a natural function in the ecosystem. Yet an icky, slimy scene can ruin plans for a day on the water when conditions – generally warm, stagnant water rich in excess nitrogen, phosphorus,or other nutrient pollution – sparks rapid growth.

Ross Lunetta, EPA research physical scientist, leads a team of research and application scientists who proposed a Pathfinder Innovation Project to validate a new algorithm that uses satellite data for predicting algal blooms in freshwater systems.

Specifically, the team’s project targets cyanobacteria, known to make humans and animals sick with symptoms such as respiratory distress and skin rashes. On the basis of algae cell counts, more than a quarter of lakes nationwide have enough cyanobacteria for moderate to high risk according to the most recent National Lakes Assessment Report in 2009.

Tallying the density of cyanobacteria cells in a water body can provide an estimate of potential exposure risk. But sampling more than a handful of the nation’s lakes can be costly and slow. Plus, current satellite data and its analysis fall short.

Existing field measurement programs were not designed to provide data that researchers can readily use to calibrate and validate satellite-based observations. And satellites can’t discriminate between the sizes or the many species of cyanobacteria, some of which don’t produce toxins.

“It’s not necessarily the same species in Maine as it is in Florida,” Lunetta said. “These things can be very different in size.”

Not knowing the cell volume, which is species specific, makes calculations of blooms cell counts, impacts, and risks a challenge.

The team is working with TopCoder, an online community to bring in outside expertise and innovation through competitions and challenges and expand the search for solutions.

TopCoder represents nearly a half million software developers and algorithm specialists. The company’s process breaks large challenges into small chunks that can be coded, developed, or designed individually. Then TopCoder stacks all the pieces back together into a finished solution.

Imagine a neighborhood full of tinkerers, parts collectors and coding whiz-kids who could gather at your garage to diagnose and fix your car when the “check engine light” flashed. Each person could solve a problem within his or her specialty, and the cohesive result benefits from these specific skills.

The team’s predictive algorithm will take a few more months to design and even longer to validate, but the potential benefits are clear. Water forecasts and public health officials could alert anyone who might consider a day at the lake, and researchers could focus their efforts.

“If you have limited resources, and you can only collect five samples but you have 50 lakes,” Lunetta said, “you can pick the ones the model tells you will most likely become a problem.”

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.