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Neural Development and Environmental Factors: Collaborating to Search for Answers and Markers

UAlbany Forms Industry-Research Partnership to Develop Novel Method

ALBANY, N.Y. (September 24, 2015) -- With chemicals in the environment found to affect the most vulnerable populations -- the unborn, young and the elderly -- the University at Albany’s RNA Institute, along with Rensselaer, N.Y.-based Athghin Biotechnology, Inc. and the Neural Stem Cell Institute (NSCI) are seeking to find answers for millions of children afflicted with neuro-developmental disabilities worldwide. Together, the researchers will collaborate to develop a new stem cell-based method to rapidly and sensitively analyze the effects of thousands of chemical compounds to determine any detrimental health effects on brain development.

Maria Basanta Sanchez RNA Institute
RNA Institute Senior Research Scientist Maria Basanta-Sanchez will work with Athghin Biotechnology, Inc. and the Neural Stem Cell Institute to find answers for millions of children afflicted with neuro-developmental disabilities worldwide. (Photo Mark Schmidt)

Athghin and The RNA Institute will first partner to determine the effects of bis-phenol A (BPA) on neural stem cell development. In New York State, BPA was banned from baby bottles, sippy cups and pacifiers in 2010, but is still used in many plastic products in NY and throughout the U.S.

The research, which is designed to produce an overall better understanding of the impact of chemical compound exposure on human health, is being supported by two grants totaling nearly $350,000 from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), National Institutes of Health.

A recent study published in Translational Psychiatry estimates that environmental factors, including the standard use of industrial chemicals in commerce, may account for up to 55 percent of the risk for developing neuro-developmental disabilities, such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and other afflictions.

Over the last century, industrial chemicals have become ubiquitous in materials, products, and manufacturing processes used throughout society, and are routinely detected in people and ecosystems worldwide. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2006 more than 34 million metric tons of chemical substances were produced in, or imported into, the U.S. every day. Over the next 25 years, global chemical production is projected to double.

The EPA is expected to oversee the safety of more than 80,000 chemicals, primarily through the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), but, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office, the TSCA does not require producers to generate basic information on chemical uses, health effects, or exposures. Thus, there is a great need for novel technologies to screen industrial chemicals, both new and currently in commerce, for their deleterious effects on human health.

The partnership of Athghin, UAlbany and NSCI will seek to use perturbations from chemical toxicants exposure, which can cause alterations in the patterns of DNA gene expression and RNA modifications, as potential biomarkers of disease and treatment progression.

"Our goal is to develop a high-throughput, extremely sensitive and accurate technology to analyze and evaluate changes in the RNA biochemistry in a stem cell-based model of brain development," said Maria Basanta Sanchez, senior research scientist at The RNA Institute.

"The two grants awarded Athghin and the collaboration they constitute with The RNA Institute and The Neural Stem Cell Institute, create a powerful combination of approaches to a difficult problem, detecting and determining the effects of very small amounts of environmental chemicals on the development of the brain. In awarding two grants to Athghin, NIEHS is taking an unprecedented step to accelerate the pace in this field," says Paul Agris, director, The RNA Institute.

With input from Athghin Biotechnology, Agris and Basanta-Sanchez will contribute expertise in RNA modifications, while principal investigator Christopher Fasano and NSCI Scientific Director Sally Temple will lead the environmental testing using stem cells and their pioneering methods to model brain development in the culture dish.

"We will contribute a novel technology to analyze and evaluate changes in which genes are expressed and by how much, and which genes are shut off when cells in the midst of neural development are exposed to BPA," says Fasano.

The research satisfies the objectives of the NIH’s Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, which provide integral capital for early stage U.S. small businesses that are creating innovative technologies to improve health.

"The award of this STTR provides non-dilutive research funding for the project and reinforces the value of the partnership between Athghin, the NSCI and The RNA Institute for the development of novel diagnostic technology that will benefit patients and researchers," said David Eveleth, Athghin’s chief executive officer. "Athghin is excited to move both this innovative work and our collaboration forward."

The Neural Stem Cell Institute is a unique organization that produces leading stem cell research to develop new therapies for diseases of the central nervous system (CNS). As the only independent, non-profit neural stem cell research institute in the USA, NSCI aims to harness the power of stem cells to ease suffering caused by injury and disease of the brain, spinal cord and retina. Located in UAlbany’s Cancer Research Center on the East Campus, NSCI is led by MacArthur Award-winner Dr. Sally Temple who helped discover and define nervous system stem cells. Dr. Temple, who serves on the faculty of Biomedical Sciences at UAlbany’s School of Public Health, recruited leading researchers from around the world to help translate discovery research into new therapies for CNS repair including age-related macular degeneration, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

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A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany offers more than 120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.