ESR14 Barbara Kubíčková
Project: Health risks of natural toxins in surface waters
Principal supervisor: Dr. Klára Hilscherová
Intro to project: Quality of drinking water is governed by a number of EU regulations, assuring an internationally high standard. Nevertheless, a growing population and global warming challenge the ubiquitous access to clean and safe drinking water. The Initial Training Network (ITN) NaToxAq aims to maintain safe drinking water despite climate change and ongoing pollution of freshwater bodies. Besides xenobiotic compounds, toxic compounds of biological origin may have severe adverse effects on human health, hence deserve scientific vigilance.
Especially bacteria and photosynthetic organisms – plants and blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) – are known to produce a large variety of secondary metabolites leaching to and accumulating in soil and water reservoirs. Excessive use of fertilizers, insufficient wastewater treatment
While many of the projects within this ITN focus on identification of natural toxins, their fate
This project is comprised of four major tasks:
- Investigation of the toxic potential of selected cyanobacterial toxins on the human respiratory tract
- Research on the contribution of cyanobacterial bloom components to acute gastroenteritis
- Identification and characterization of the neurotoxic potential of cyanobacterial blooms and selected metabolites
- Human health risk assessment, combining hazard and exposure data to potentially guide risk management measures
One year ago, after reviewing literature for relevant and emergent health risks, I started addressing the hazard of the invasive cyanobacterial toxin cylindrospermopsin (CYN) on the upper human respiratory tract. Drinking water-borne compounds may reach the respiratory tract for example in aerosol droplets during bathing or from cosmetic inhalation devices. In both human bronchial cell lines tested cytotoxic effects and altered cell signaling
For the second task, I am systematically reviewing published literature reporting effects on the (human) gastrointestinal tract (GIT) and/or the humoral immune system. Even though
Besides Addressing tasks related to the project I was happy to attend two international scientific meetings: The European Union’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) Summer School on Alternative Approaches for Risk Assessment 2017 in Ispra (Italy) and the Symposium on risk assessment and risk management cooperation on environmental protection goals, organized by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) and the Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food and Environment (VKM) in Oslo (Norway, 2017). These experiences gave me valuable insight into risk assessment and policy-making at an international level and unique networking opportunities.
In the next months, I will hopefully publish the scientific reports that are currently in preparation and address the third, experimentally most extensive part of establishing an assay for the testing of neurotoxicity
20 months into the project I successfully published experimental results in a scientific journal!
My research on the effects of cylindrospermopsin, a potent cyanobacterial toxin, on cells from the respiratory tract has been accepted for publication in Chemosphere – have a look here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2018.12.157
Also, a literature review on the contribution of cyanobacterial metabolites to acute gastroenteritis is available here: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12302-019-0212-2.
With the first two tasks in my project (nearly) finished, I am embarking in the third journey: implementing a human health-relevant in vitro model to study neurotoxicity and altered neural differentiation. Upon consultation with Dr. Anna Bal-Price (European Union Joint Research Centre, Ispra, Italy; EURL ECVAM) who is highly involved in the validation and integration of 3R-compliant, alternative methods for developmental neurotoxicity testing (DNT) for regulatory purposes. Following her advice, I teamed up with a senior researcher colleague, Dr. Dáša Bohačiaková (Institute of Histology and Embryology, Masaryk University) and started implementing a human neural stem cell model. I will use this model to assess the acute toxicity of single cyanobacterial toxins and binary mixtures. Concentrations of no or little cytotoxicity will then be tested in a mixed culture of differentiating neural progenitors, neurons and glial cells.
Together, these results will contribute to a risk assessment I will conduct at the end of this year at the NaToxAq beneficiary Fera Science Ltd. (York, UK) under the supervision of Dr. Carmel Ramwell.
Besides work at my place of employment, I was very happy to present preliminary results at two international conferences: SETAC Europe conference (May 2018, Rome) and the International Conference on Harmful Algae (October 2018, Nantes). These offered me a great opportunity for networking and knowledge exchange with international experts in the field of phycology and (eco-) toxicology – the interface and professional niche of my highest scientific interest.
Today is the last day of my MSCA employment – tomorrow I will technically be an alumnus. Fortunately, I can continue to work at RECETOX until I finish my PhD, which will hopefully be this autumn.
The last year the advantages and challenges of being an MSCA student were striking. At one side, I was able to travel for conferences, meetings and secondments to an extent that is unimaginable for regular students. I attended 5 conferences or meetings and travelled to Germany and the UK for secondments – each for two months. That also meant, that during the year 2019, I was never in one place for longer than 2 months. That was rather challenging, for both, personal life, but also for progress in the project. The last (recent) part of my PhD consists of setting up a test system for developmental neurotoxicity – and the most suitable system requires continuous cultivation for 3 weeks without preparation (which is another month). I could not have done this without the help of a very dedicated and self-sufficient master student.
However, with the help of her, I was able to set up the test system and I am currently finishing testing and evaluation using this advanced human developmental neurotoxicity model for cyanobacterial-bloom-relevant metabolites and I am quite excited about the results, as well as the usability of this model in future research. Besides communication of the progress on this at various conferences, of course scientific publications are under preparations and you will be notified via our website as soon as they are out.
Despite the challenging and ambitious project, I (almost) always enjoyed being a PhD student, and even more to be a MSCA fellow. The community support is extraordinary and the conditions of employment, especially in a EU widening country like the Czech Republic, are outstanding. While, I believe, that the pursuit of a PhD should always be motivated by passion for the topic, having sustainable financing greatly helps with being content about the decision to go for a PhD.