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OSU prof’s grant-funded zebrafish study may curb need to use animals for chemical testing

Zebrafish in the lab of Robyn Tanguay at Oregon State University
Lynn Ketchum/OSU
Zebrafish in the lab of Robyn Tanguay at Oregon State University

CORVALLIS, Ore. (KTVZ) – An Oregon State University toxicologist has received a $7 million grant to study the biological impacts of chemicals, which could potentially lead to reducing or eliminating the need for chemical testing on animals

Robyn Tanguay, a distinguished professor in Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences, is the recipient of the eight-year grant in the field of predictive toxicology from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

For the past 20 years, Tanguay has pioneered the use of zebrafish in toxicology research, publishing more than 200 papers and leading several large teams from her 17,000-square-foot Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory. 

Zebrafish are ideal for toxicology research because they are vertebrates that grow incredibly fast — a tiny egg will become a recognizable fish in just 24 hours. This allows scientists to observe the biological effects of chemicals at various stages of development. Eighty-four percent of chemicals known to affect human development affect zebrafish development in similar ways.

With the grant, Tanguay plans to address a problem with chemical studies: they typically focus on one chemical at a time, which is slow-moving considering the scale and mixture of chemicals in the environment. More than 80,000 chemicals have been commercialized, and regulatory agencies have only tested the toxicity of about 1% of them

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences identified predictive toxicology as a strategic goal for advancing environmental health science, and Tanguay believes that zebrafish modeling has enormous potential benefits to environmental health, as well as the economy.

“My group likes to solve problems,” Tanguay said. “It’s what we do.” Until now, the problems they have solved have been focused and specific. This new grant changes that.

Tanguay plans to ramp up testing on a massive scale — by exposing millions of embryonic zebrafish to a library of 10,000 chemicals commonly found in food additives, medicines, consumer products and industrial chemicals. She will collaborate with data scientists to examine correlations among chemical structure, exposure, phenotype, behavior and gene response

This will provide insight into how the structure of a chemical determines its toxicity and greatly reduces the time and cost of discovering how chemical networks are related to human disease.

“The zebrafish is the only vertebrate model in which it is technically and economically feasible to complete a predictive toxicological study of this depth and breadth,” Tanguay said.

Tanguay is particularly excited by this grant, because, unlike traditional grants, it gives researchers carte blanche to follow their scientific instincts. 

“The problem with specific projects is that they are tied to specific outcomes, and often limited in scope,” she said. “This funding program removes those limitations.”

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences created the RIVER (Revolutionizing Innovative, Visionary Environmental health Research) program “to support people, not projects.” The program rewards “outstanding environmental health sciences researchers who demonstrate a broad vision and potential for continuing their impactful research with increased scientific flexibility, stability in funding, and administrative efficiency.”

“It gives scientists the creative freedom to explore big ideas,” Tanguay said.

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  1. But zebrafish are also animals(?). Is this scheme predicated on the notion that animal rights activists will care less about zebrafish than they do about animals they consider worthy of protection; e.g., “cute” mammals?

      1. In toxicology. This has little to no bearing on behavioral research or drug development. FYI it’s hard to get approval for animal testing. IACUC requires you to jump through numerous hoops including a justification for why a computer model or noninvasive methods are insufficient.

  2. Barney,
    If the goal is to use fewer animals, then this breakthrough is a major fail. From the news piece, “Tanguay plans to ramp up testing on a massive scale — by exposing millions of embryonic zebrafish to a library of 10,000 chemicals.” If the goal is to use fewer cute and cuddly animals, this project is a win. I was merely pointing out that the title is wrong at the least and misleading at the best. Since fish are animals, this project will be using many many more animals. They just happen to be ones few people have strong emotions over.

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