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2019 Pathfinder Innovation Project Awardees

Pathfinder Innovation Projects (PIPS) challenge EPA scientists to answer the question, "Wouldn't it be amazing if we could ... ?" The internal competition provides staff time and seed funding in pursuit of high-risk, high-reward research ideas. Below is information on the 2019 awarded PIP projects.

Learn more about Pathfinder Innovation Projects.

Use of Metabolic Pathway Signaling to Control Harmful Algal Blooms

Building on evidence that hazardous algal blooms are preceded by nitrogen production from cyanobacteria, the aim of this project is to detect nitrogen production very early through metabolic signals. Early warning of potential blooms would have great impact, allowing the problem to be managed sooner, with much lower quantities of control chemicals.

In Vitro Dermal Response Test to Determine Exposure to Waterborne Cyanobacteria

This project addresses the problem that no readily usable methods are available to detect when cyanobacteria in water reach concentrations that are harmful to swimmers.  This effort will determine if a commercially available 3D human skin tissue culture system can be used to detect and quantify the effects of exposure to cyanobacteria in a water sample.  Rapid, early reporting indicators for human health effects to inform beach closures due to algal blooms is a high priority issue for EPA and the states.

Development of Fluorescence Sensor Array for PFAS Detection

Current methods for analysis of PFAS in environmental samples are instrument-oriented, time consuming, and expensive. Fluorescence technology has been successfully used for detection of hazardous substances in recent years. The aim of this project is to develop a rapid, simple, comprehensive, and cost-effective fluorescent sensor array for detection, measurement and classification of a variety of PFAS, individually and in combinatons.

Degrading PFAS using Innovative UV-vis/Znx Cu1-xFe2O4/Oxalic Acid Technology (2018 PIP extension)

This project is a continuation of a 2018 PIP that is producing promising early results.  It addresses the issue that treatment for PFAS-contaminated water is costly and typically relies on methods that separate out the PFAS, transferring the problem to another waste stream.  This effort is developing and testing a catalyst to degrade PFAS in water, identify the degradation products, look at the effect of co-pollutants, and consider scaling up the process.  If successful, the proposed approach would degrade the PFAS to inert by-products, at an affordable cost.

Pathogen Exposures from Microplastics-Dependent Biofilms

Large amounts of plastics in water bodies have led to numerous concerns, including the potential for microplastics to harbor pathogenic bacteria and increase human exposures . The goal is to use advanced analytical techniques to identify the conditions that favor bacterial growth on microplastics and develop a predictive model for presence of pathogens.  This project will address the current lack of information regarding microplastics as vectors of waterborne pathogens. Characterizing microplastics and addressing toxicity are high research priorities for EPA.

Virtual Screening for Chemical Binding Across the Diversity of Species

The pharmaceutical industry uses computational methods to “virtually” screen hundreds of compounds to determine which ones will bind to a target protein for drug delivery. This new screening application would somewhat reverse the process, by evaluating a handful of chemicals for potential to interact with hundreds to thousands of proteins – and variations in those proteins across species – including vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, and others. This new method could provide information for chemical interactions with proteins in species where limited or no toxicity data exist, reduce costs for screening, and reduce animal use in toxicity testing.

Using Single Cell RNA Sequencing of Human Stem Cells for Predicting Developmental Toxicity

The majority of chemicals currently in commerce have not been adequately tested for developmental toxicity and there is no predictive model available to solve this problem. Most (60-80 percent) of the in-vitro new alternative methods using stem cells do not correlate with the in-vivo findings for a chemical, so that most developmental toxicants are missed. The research team will develop a “new alternative method” to provide in-depth assessment of chemical effects on embryonic stem cells using single cell RNA sequencing. Data generated from the new model will identify potentially bioactive chemicals and provide data to meet new TCSA requirements.

Serum MicroRNAs as Non-Invasive Biomarkers of Developmental Neurotoxicity (2018 PIP extension)

Current test methods for monitoring the impact of thyroid-disrupting chemicals on the developing brain are expensive, time-consuming and lack sensitivity. Under initial PIP work in 2018-2019, the team successfully identified a panel of serum microRNA candidates that correlate to developmental neurotoxicity in rats.  In the next phase of work, they will undertake validation of these biomarkers. New biomarkers could be used to improve current chemical testing strategies, and also be used to monitor the health effects of thyroid-disrupting chemicals in children by a rapid, non-invasive method.

Establishing Methods to Assess Epigenetic Signatures in Archived Study Tissues

Biorepositories contain millions of preserved tissue samples from toxicity studies covering hundreds of compounds with data on study methods, animal condition, and results. Revisiting these experiments using new methods on preserved samples will aid in a molecular understanding of adverse chemical effects. The research team will study DNA changes in archived tissue samples that reflect environmental exposures to chemicals. These measurements can potentially link early life exposures to later-in-life disease by identifying early biomarkers of susceptibility.

Variospective Biomarker Proteomics Method for AOP Analysis on Formalin-fixed Tissues

EPA has large repositories of formalin-fixed tissues generated during previous environmental exposure studies in mice, but the preservation process has prevented the analysis of proteins in the tissues. The research team is proposing a novel method for analysis of the preserved tissues. Data from this research will identify biomarkers of effects and contribute to adverse outcome pathway analysis, while potentially reducing the need for animal studies.

Advanced development of Genotoxicity Signature for Human Health Risk Assessment and the Use of ToxCastTM Data for Prediction of Carcinogenicity

Differentiating among genotoxic carcinogens, non-genotoxic carcinogens, and non-carcinogens is critical for human health risk assessment, yet it remains challenging since commonly-used methods can produce conflicting results. This PIP will explore two approaches to making these distinctions. The first effort will focus on how to apply a “genotoxicity signature” in risk assessment through use of publicly-available data from gene expression studies. A second effort will explore the potential of EPA's ToxCast data to build models that can make distinctions and evaluate their predictive performance. The impact is potentially transformative for human health risk assessment and advancing methods for hazard identification of priority chemicals.

High Throughput Screening of Inhaled Compounds in the Asthmatic Lung

Current high throughput toxicity testing platforms are based on healthy cells and tissues and fail to identify impacts on susceptible subgroups. The team will develop a new system that will, for the first-time, enable higher throughput assessment of the impacts of inhalable compounds in normal and asthmatic lungs. If successful, this effort will bridge understanding between in vitro and in vivo responses in both healthy and asthmatic individuals and enhance toxicity testing for inhaled chemicals including air toxics, emerging contaminants (PFAS/PFOA) and environmental mixtures such as wildfire smoke.      

Prototype for Integrating Social and Cultural Considerations into Environmental Cleanup

This project uses social science and participatory methods to help EPA project managers effectively address social and cultural factors that affect environmental remediation, so that stakeholder conflicts are reduced, and sites are remediated more quickly.

In Situ Self-cleaning Adsorption System for the Remediation of Perfluoroalkyl Substance (PFAS) in Contaminated Groundwater

This project tackles the issue of PFAS found in groundwater.  It will develop high capacity adsorbent materials for PFAS and demonstrate that catalysts can be combined with adsorbents to create a self-cleaning system that is effective at degrading mixtures of PFAS. It will use microorganisms to protect the adsorbent from biological contamination. If successful, this could be a significant advancement in PFAS remediation. Degrading PFAS in situ would be of interest for many applications.

Effects of Paternal Exposures on Children’s Health

Exposure to environmental stressors in fathers is an important, yet understudied, mode of developmental toxicity in offspring. This project will study wildland fire smoke exposures in male rats to determine if there are impacts on sperm quality and function and specific epigenetic responses to smoke. This work will provide important information related to particulate matter health risk and could potentially lead to discovery of an early predictive biomarker of postnatal outcomes in sperm.