Environmental Factor – February 2022: Early Career Researchers Celebrated in New Lecture Series

Highlighting the work of Early Career Investigators (ESIs) has been an important part of the NIEHS Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) annual meetings Main centers. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily derailed plans for a face-to-face meeting hosted by the Mount Sinai Transdisciplinary Center on Early Environmental Exposurescenter members Maria Jose Rosa, Dr PHand Douglas Walker, Ph.D., offered a series of virtual webinars to highlight the work of WISEs in EHS Core Centers. Program Director Claudia Thompson, Ph.D.and Senior Community Engagement Coordinator Liam O’Fallon supported their efforts and helped launch a new monthly speaker series. The inauguration ESI Spotlight Webinar took place on January 12.

Cetewayo Rashid, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, spoke about his research into the health effects of an organophosphate flame retardant. He is affiliated with the university Appalachian Research Center for Environmental Sciences.

“If you have a couch in your house, or you’re driving in a car, or sitting in a comfortable office chair, you’re probably exposed to these flame retardants,” Rashid said. (Photo courtesy of Cetewayo Rashid)

Joseph Romano, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, shared his work to advance toxicology research through artificial intelligence. He is affiliated with the university Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology.

Flame retardants and metabolic syndrome

Rashid described his work using a mouse model to examine links between exposure to the flame retardant tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate, known as TDCPP, and metabolic disruption.

Although the flame retardant pentabromodiphenyl ether was phased out in upholstery and other commercial applications beginning in 2004, the substance has largely been replaced by TDCPP. He noted that in the body, the chemical is broken down into bis(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (BDCPP), and 90% of Americans have detectable levels of BDCPP in their urine.

Sharing data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey, Rashid pointed out that there is a significant positive association between urinary BDCPP levels and metabolic syndrome in men. Of the five components of metabolic syndrome, BDCPP levels were primarily correlated with abdominal fat and hyperglycemia, both of which increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.

“We performed various metabolic tests in mice and found a dose-dependent increase in body fat percentage and a decrease in insulin sensitivity in response to TDCPP exposure,” Rashid said. “These data support a causal relationship between TDCPP exposure and male-specific metabolic disturbance.”

Artificial intelligence in toxicology

Joseph Romano, Ph.D. Romano earned his Ph.D. in Biomedical Informatics from Columbia University in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Peragine Photography)

Romano introduced an online toolkit called ComptoxAIwhich he developed to support the use of artificial intelligence in computational toxicology.

“ComptoxAI is fully open access and under development,” he said. “Everything can be run on your own computer at home, and community participation is encouraged.”

The development and application of new tools that combine advanced artificial intelligence methods with publicly available data are the main goals of the initiative, Romano explained. He said the digital portal will allow scientists to discover new associations between toxic environmental exposures and clinically important human diseases.

“We want to use ComptoxAI to examine hypotheses supported by experimental evidence and, by synthesizing different types of evidence, focus on things we couldn’t see before,” Romano said. “We want to synthesize new knowledge.”

Among other features, ComptoxAI provides a large graphical database of biomedical knowledge related to toxicology; a suite of information search tools; algorithms to analyze data on chemicals, genes, diseases, chemical tests, etc. ; and tools to help researchers categorize the computational toxicology data they generate.

“We are continually developing new [features] to make all of these features accessible,” Romano said. “We want every toxicologist or anyone interested in learning toxicology to be able to run this and generate some really exciting results that they can interpret for themselves.”

(John Yewell is contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)


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