June 19, 2008

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has awarded the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health a $3.4 million grant to help the School strengthen its research portfolio in computational toxicology and bioinformatics.Computational toxicology is a branch of environmental health sciences that applies mathematical and computer models to predict adverse effects of drugs and environmental chemicals and to better understand the ways they may cause harm to human health and the environment. This relatively young discipline offers the possibility that scientists might be able to develop a much better understanding of risks posed by chemicals released into the environment.

Photograph, Dr. Ivan Rusyn

Photograph, Dr. Ivan Rusyn

The grant, which will be awarded over four years, aids the establishment of The Carolina Center for Computational Toxicology (http://comptox.unc.edu). The Center will advance the field of computational toxicology through development of new methods and computational tools, as well as through interdisciplinary collaborative efforts within UNC and with other environmental health science researchers.

“We are delighted to receive this highly competitive award,” said Ivan Rusyn, MD, PhD, UNC School of Public Health associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering, associate director of the Curriculum in Toxicology, and principal investigator for the project. “UNC School of Public Health is a world leader in many areas of science that improve the health of people in North Carolina and around the world, and the new Center will strengthen our capacity for understanding and predicting the inter-individual differences in risk from environmental exposures.”

The research in the Center spans from the fine-scale predictive simulations of the protein-protein and protein-chemical interactions in nuclear receptor networks, to mapping chemical-perturbed networks and devising modeling tools that can predict the pathobiology of the test compounds based on a limited set of biological data, to building tools that will enable toxicologists to understand the role of genetic diversity between individuals in responses to toxicants, to unbiased discovery-driven prediction of adverse chronic in vivo outcomes based on statistical modeling of chemical structures, high-throughput screening and the genetic makeup of the organism.

The Center will develop and publish new state-of-the-art, computer-based models and tools. The tools will be widely disseminated, with special attention paid to the ability of the risk assessment community and investigative toxicologists to use them. The synthesis of data from a variety of sources will move the field of computational toxicology from a hypothesis-driven science toward a predictive science. A detailed quality management plan will ensure that the research and data management are conducted with integrity and adhere to appropriate data interchange standards. Public outreach will help to make certain that the activities of the Center are translated into useable information and materials for the public and policymakers.

Other key UNC investigators in the Center are:

  • Fred Wright, PhD, associate professor of biostatistics; Mayetri Gupta, PhD, assistant professor of biostatistics; Andrew Nobel, PhD, professor of biostatistics and statistics and operations research; and Wei Sun, PhD, assistant professor of biostatistics and genetics, in the School of Public Health;
  • Shawn Gomez, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and Timothy Elston, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology; in the School of Medicine;
  • Alexander Tropsha, PhD, professor and chair, and Xiang Simon Wang, PhD, research assistant professor, Division of Medicinal Chemistry and Natural Products, in the School of Pharmacy.

Rusyn can be reached at (919) 843-2596 or ivan_rusyn@unc.edu.