MACRAMÉ Partner Spotlight: University of Birmingham

The core mission of the University of Birmingham (UoB) is to deliver world-class research and outstanding global education that improves the world around us. The School of Geography, Earth and Environmental sciences at the University of Birmingham is recognised as one of the top environmental science departments in the UK, with areas of particular strength including environmental nanosciences, air pollution, and assessment of the impacts of emerging pollutants; its researchers engage actively with regulatory bodies, industry partners, and policy-makers to translate research into practical solutions and science-informed policy.  

“While nanoscale and advanced materials are driving industrial innovation, responsible development requires that we assess their safety in parallel. As a MACRAMÉ partner, the University of Birmingham are developing both ecotoxicity test methods optimised for advanced materials, as well as “shepherding” materials characterisation, toxicity and ecotoxicity data towards FAIRness, thereby increasing its utility for regulatory risk assessment.”

Professor Iseult Lynch, University of Birmingham

Recognising the critical importance of interdisciplinary research to address the major environmental and societal challenges of pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss, the university has recently established the Centre for Environmental Research and Justice bringing together environmental scientists, medics, informaticians, social scientists and lawyers to generate knowledge and develop practical solutions that promote environmental sustainability and social justice.

The University of Birmingham & the MARCAMÉ Project

‘The role of the Univeristy of Birmingham (UoB) in the MARCAMÉ Project is two-fold in that we are both data generators (ecotoxicity testing / method development and characterisation of the advanced materials transformations in biological and environmental systems) and data shepherds (developing “on-the-fly” solutions to make data and accompanying metadata machine-actionable), and thus we have quite unique insights into both sides of the data management lifecycle,’ says the UoB lead scientist, Professor Iseult Lynch.

‘Our ecotoxicity work will focus on two main model systems:

Figure 1: Daphnia are a key species for ecotoxicity testing of advanced materials with adjustments needed to standard tests to account for their environmental transformations.
  • the water flea, Daphnia magna (see Figure 1), where we are working to increase the environmental relevance and predictive power of acute ecotoxicity studies through use of conditioned medium since the advanced materials will never reach the environment without acquiring a layer of macromolecules (an environmental corona) and undergoing a range of transformations; and
  • a continuously cultured zebrafish embryo cell line, that is compliant with the 3Rs policy of reducing, reusing and replacing animal tests, and allows assessment of potential developmental effects from the test materials or their formulations in comparison to zebrafish liver cells and rainbow trout gill and liver cells (being tested by partner Gaiker).’

UoB’s research integrates ecotoxicity assessment and characterisation of the materials transformations under the exposure conditions, to facilitate development of quantitative structure-property relationships correlating material properties with adverse impacts.

‘Wearing our other “hat”, UoB will also provides data shepherding support to all partners, including dataset curation, annotation and compilation for modelling  building on approaches developed in the H2020 NanoCommons project, and leveraging the huge efforts underway in the Horizon Europe PARC project in which the UoB team are the co-Lead for the FAIR data activities, with a current focus on integrating FAIR,’ Lynch explains, who has recently been described as a Data FAIRy (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Slide (image) courtesy of Dr. Vladimir Lobaskin, University College Dublin, presented at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) meeting in Dublin 2023, May 2023, as part of his presentation on “Bionano Interactions: A Key to Mechanistic Understanding of Nanoparticle Toxicity”.

One of the most exciting aspects of MACRAMÉ for UoB is the clear focus on driving the science developed in the Project into regulatory practice, through development of new OECD Test Guidelines (TGs) / Guidance Documents, or revision / extension of existing Test Guidelines. Work towards this is already being masterminded through the development of the Harmonisation & Standardisation Roadmaps early in the project – these will be delivered by Month 12 of the project (November 2023) (see also: ‘Workshop Announcement: Harmonisation & Standardisation of Test Methods for Nanomaterials and Advanced Materials‘). UoB are leading the development of the Harmonisation & Standardisation Roadmap for ecotoxicity, where we are considering a range of innovations including:

  • Extension of applicability of recently updated or currently being adapted for nanomaterials TGs (e.g., OECD 202 acute daphnia toxicity test) to cover 2D materials and products containing these;
  • Adaption of existing TG for assessment of acute and sub-chronic ecotoxicity effects including optimising the duration, medium (e.g. use of Natural Organic Matter as disperant), and other changes to maximise the capability for grouping of related nanoforms / advanced materials;
  • Extension of existing fish cell culture Test Guideline (OECD249) to other cell types (e.g. the zebrafish cells) and to consider different exposure considerations (direct, indirect, via releasate) to enable testing of 2D materials and their products; and
  • Longer term vision includes development of new approaches such as fish cell co-culture models.

The direct interaction with regulatory experts and partners familiar with the validation of test methods is very exciting and will ensure smooth interactions and lower the barriers to success by sharing their experience and know-how.

UoB’s MACRAMÉ Ambitions

An ongoing concern with in vitro test systems is that they do not replicate the complexity of in vivo systems, and thus miss systematic and adaptive responses to perturbations.  Thus, one of the exciting challenges that UoB will address in MACRAMÉ is to push the boundaries of fish cell culturing for ecotoxicity assessment and develop co-culture models and a transwell set-up to mimic uptake and translocation processes in fish. The ambition (longer-term) is to move also towards fish-on-a-chip approaches, but that will be beyond the scope of the current Project.  UoB Co-lead Dr Zhiling Guo is experienced in advanced cell culture approaches and barrier models and will support the application of these innovative approaches to fish cell culture for ecotoxicity testing.

‘We have been inspired by the degree of camaraderie in the Project to date and the highly engaged partners working collectively to address the complex logistical, experimental design and data management challenges presented by MACRAMÉ, and the problem-solving nature of the team-working approach,’ notes Lynch. ‘The UoB team are also really looking forward to helping to organise a conference in Cyprus in June 2024, in collaboration with the Digital-Emerging-01-35 Cluster of projects, following nanoweek event in June 2022.’

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