UF researcher selected as semifinalist in toxicology testing competition

Dr. Christopher Vulpe, a professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, is a semifinalist in a toxicology testing competition sponsored by several federal agencies.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health and other groups organized the three-part competition, which will award up to $1 million to improve the relevance and predictability of data generated from chemical screening technology used for toxicology testing. Only a small number of chemicals in use today have enough toxicity data to fully evaluate their potential health risks, and better approaches to evaluate the safety of chemicals are needed, according to the EPA.

Known as the Transform Chemical Testing Challenge, the competition called on innovative thinkers to find new ways of improving current toxicity testing methods. Specifically, participants were charged with developing methods of incorporating metabolic processes into the type of testing now widely used.

Vulpe, a member of the college’s Center for Environmental and Human Toxicology, joined UF’s faculty in 2015 as part of the university’s preeminence initiative. He was selected as a semifinalist in the competition’s first stage, which sought conceptual solutions that could be experimentally implemented and awarded $10,000 prizes to the winners, along with an invitation to continue on to the next stage.

“Our team from UF, working collaboratively with associate professor Michael Fasullo from the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, is studying the response of immortalized human cells grown in vitro, or in a dish, to chemicals of concern,” Vulpe said.

Immortalized human cells are a population of cells from a multicellular organism which have mutated and are capable of reproducing indefinitely, hence are able to be grown in vitro for prolonged periods of time.

“However, a major problem with most immortalized human cells is reduced or absent metabolic enzymes involved in chemical metabolism,” Vulpe added. “This means that toxicology tests using them may not accurately reflect what could be expected in a person,” he said.

The proposed method makes use of a DNA-editing technology known as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, to activate one or more genes for the metabolic enzymes that the cultured cells no longer produce. That allows the cultured cells to begin metabolizing chemicals as they normally would in the body — thus improving the accuracy of the toxicity tests.

“More predictive in vitro tests could also reduce the need for animals in chemical testing,” Vulpe said.

He will compete in the next stage of the competition to develop a prototype system that demonstrates proof of concept.