Gene Editing a Promising Tool to Study Chemical Health Effects

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By Pat Rizzuto

Gene-editing technologies have the potential to offer new insights into the ways chemicals affect people and the environment, an EPA scientist said at a recent National Academies workshop.

These methods can help risk assessors understand, for example, whether people with certain genetic traits or at particular stages of life are more or less vulnerable to a chemical’s potential harmful effects, said Stanley Barone, acting director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Science Coordination and Policy.

“These are additional tools in our tool box to help us understand adversity, and we’d like to encourage their use,” he said Jan. 11 during a workshop organized by a National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee.

But scientists that want federal agencies to use environmental health data from gene-editing studies will need to use standardized approaches and provide consistent, thorough information, Barone said. For example, they’ll need to provide details such as the genes used, genetic changes made, and cells or other biological materials in which the tests were conducted, he said.

Some Companies Well Positioned

Corporations such as Cargill Inc., the Monsanto Co., and Oxitec Ltd., have used gene modification and editing technologies for years to make products including biodiesel, herbicide-resistant crops, and sterile insects, which are designed to limit the spread of diseases.

Some gene modification techniques, like breeding, are thousands of years old, but others such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) are relatively new. Like “molecular scissors,” CRISPR techniques use enzymes to add, remove, or alter genes to cause DNA to behave in specific ways.

The workshop focused on using CRISPR and related technologies to study the environmental health effects of chemicals.

Biotech companies, in particular, already have the capabilities and knowledge to use gene-editing tools in new ways, committee member Reza Rasoulpour, global regulatory leader for crop protection research and development at DowDuPont, told Bloomberg Environment.

Suppose preliminary research suggested a chemical might cause a cell’s signals to go awry because the molecule binds to a particular receptor, he said. Gene-editing tools could quickly and efficiently modify cells to confirm whether or not the chemical binds to the receptor, Rasoulpour said.

Company toxicologists already have cellular tests that can do those types of studies, but gene-editing techniques enable the research to be done more quickly and precisely, he said. That would help corporate toxicologists ask precise questions about specific biological changes, Rasoulpour said.

Emergent Use in Environmental Health

Nearly every speaker described the use of gene-editing methods for environmental health research as nascent, yet offering more ways to study biological function.

Only a few of the thousands of gene-editing studies published over the last 10 years focus on the environmental and health effects of chemicals, said Luoping Zhang, an adjunct toxicology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Among those, a 2016 study published in Environmental Science & Technology, described ways triclosan—an antibacterial agent added to soaps and other consumer products—affects human cells, she said.

Richard Woychik, deputy director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said researchers also can use gene-editing technologies to study specially designed laboratory mice that are genetically diverse and, therefore, potentially more representative of the diversity in the human population.

The methods can help identify which gene variation is responsible for a greater or lesser toxic response to a chemical, he said. That information helps identify vulnerable populations under pesticide and chemicals laws the EPA oversees.

Lesa Aylward, a member of the academies’ emerging environmental health science committee, described the workshop’s goals of helping academic, corporate, and federal toxicologists broaden their understanding of gene-editing tools. That knowledge could spark ideas to use the tools in new ways, said Aylward, a principal at Summit Toxicology, LLP’s Falls Church, Va. office.

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