GIWS researcher helps develop tool to assess environmental risks of chemicals

A University of Saskatchewan research team led by toxicologist Markus Hecker will work with scientists from McGill University and Environment and Climate Change Canada on a $9.6-million project to develop and commercialize a new genomics tool for assessing the risk of chemicals in the environment.

This article originally appeared in Usask News on December 8. To view the original, click here.

The U of S will receive about $3.8 million of the total four-year funding for the project announced today by Canadian funding agencies including Genome Canada and its regional counterparts, Genome Quebec and Genome Prairie. The project is one of only 13 announced today by federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan.

Working with industry partners, the project’s aim is to develop a commercial testing tool known as EcoToxChip that will help regulatory agencies and industry assess the safety of thousands of chemicals in the environment. The technology can also be applied to testing chemicals in everyday life such as pharmaceuticals or personal care products.

“Currently, assessing the ecological or human health risks of even a single chemical substance released to the environment can take years and cost millions of dollars,” said Hecker, a professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability as well as a Canada Research Chair in Predictive Aquatic Ecotoxicology at the U of S. “Successful development of the EcoToxChip tool will represent a quantum leap towards a more economic, rapid and ethical assessment of the safety of chemicals that can affect diverse species of fish, birds and amphibians.”

The project team expects EcoToxChip will deliver huge benefits to Canada through cost savings of more than $27 million a year in conducting environmental risk assessments, while achieving a seven-fold decrease in the time required. It will also dramatically reduce, by as much as 90 per cent, the need for toxicity testing in animals.

Hecker is assembling a team that includes a co-investigator, project manager, a bioinformatics research scientist, several visiting scientists from China, two research technicians and about a dozen graduate students. The U of S team will also employ a number of undergraduate summer students.

U of S Vice-President Research Karen Chad says U of S participation in the project reflects the renowned work conducted at the Toxicology Centre and its ability to attract top global researchers such as Hecker who joined the U of S in 2011.

“Through our Toxicology Centre and Global Institute for Water Security, the U of S is now at the forefront of research protecting our freshwater resources,” said Chad. “Taking a leadership role in this important national project is a measure of the expertise we are building in an area so critical to the health of the environment and people.”

EcoToxChip technology is based on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tools, a now standard procedure in chemical testing for human health. Hecker says the EcoToxChips will contain more than 300 genes representing key biological functions that will enable rapid and economic prediction of the hazard a particular chemical poses.

The leading producer of commercial PCR testing kits for human health, Qiagen Canada, is one of the funding partners and will be the manufacturer of the EcoToxChip. Other partners include B.C. environmental testing company AXYS, Shell Canada, and two international collaborators—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.