Biomarkers, in vitro technologies, the microbiome and more will be featured at this year’s Society of Toxicology meeting in San Diego. The first of a four-part series.

The science of toxicology dates back at least to ancient Greece when Pythagoras’ villification of fava beans functioned as an early-day—though apparently unwarranted—warning label.

Over 2,500 years later, the central goal of toxicology remains more or less the same. Researchers are still intent on learning how people and animals react to chemicals, drugs, products, and using the information to guide how they are used. What has changed are the methods used to determine cause and effect. The scientific evidence is far less empirical and the tools much more objective. Stem technology, the genomic revolution and advances in vitro technologies are also influencing the current state of toxicological testing.

The latest innovations and trends, and over 2,500 abstracts will be highlighted at the Society of Toxicology’s 54th Annual Meeting and ToxExpo in San Diego March 22-26. The event kicks off Sunday with a series of continuing education courses (including one chaired by Charles River on skeletal system endocrinology and toxicology). About 6,500 are expected to attend the meeting, the largest gathering of toxicologists in the world. If you are interested in what Charles River will be presenting, check out our SOT 2015 conference microsite and program guide.

One of the reigning hot topics we’re curious about is the gut microbiome and its influence on research models and study designs. Imbalances in this complex ecosystem of over 1,000 intestinal microbiota has been linked to diseases that ostensibly have little do with the body’s microbiota, such as diabetes, cancer and autism. While it remains to be seen whether these associations between a disordered gut and disease states are real, the microbiome has become a topic of intense interest both among scientists and the public. It’s hard not to find talks about this at science meetings these days, not to mention in the popular press.

One of SOT’s featured discussions this year, Frontiers for Toxicology, will explore how cutting-edge and next-generation technologies are being used to analyze the microbiome in human health, disease and therapeutics. And one of Charles River’s roundtable discussions will bring together two experts—Clifford Rosen, Director of Clinical and Translational Medicine at Maine Medical Center and Rodney Dietert, Professor of Immunotoxicology at Cornell University—to debate the reciprocal interactions between bones, the immune system and the microbiome. Charles River Principal Scientist and Musculoskeletal Biologist Rana Samadfam will moderate the discussion. Three recent Eureka blogs, found herehere and here, also discuss the role of the microbiome in disease and research animal diagnostics.

Humane research

Finding methods that replace, reduce or refine the use of animals—the 3Rs—is a recurring topic at the SOT meeting, and this year is no exception. Developed over five decades ago as a framework for humane animal research, the 3Rs have also become a framework for conducting high quality science. In the realm of carcinogenicity testing, for instance, pharmaceutical manufacturers, academic scientists, regulators and chemical and plant protection industries are wrestling with ways to improve hazard evaluation and risk assessment while implementing 3Rs principles.

Charles River will be presenting a record-setting 12 sessions that relate to the 3Rs, double what it was last year, including one related to carcinogenicity testing in rodent models. Other 3R-related sessions will focus on the blood-sparing technique known as microsampling that is increasingly seen as an attractive alternative to traditional blood draws, social housing, alternatives to large animal models and the connection between rodent nesting environments and study outcomes.

Minipigs and biomarkers

Minipig toxicology is another hot topic we’ll be tuning into at the SOT meeting. Minipigs have long been used in dermal studies because their skin is similar in thickness to human skin. More recently, they have emerged as a viable alternative to large animal species in safety assessment studies. At the same time, improvements in technology have given way to the development of genetically-modified minipig models that are being used to study the neurodegenerative killers, Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease.

Still, while minipigs have grow in popularity as a disease model, how extensively they are being used in toxicology studies is not entirely clear. Most study results are unavailable in the public domain—only a handful of references that mention both minipigs and toxicology appear in the National Library of Medicine’s database. The SOT meeting will hopefully address some of these gaps in our understanding of the minipig.

Lastly, we’re looking forward to hearing more about the burgeoning biomarker industry, in particular how to choose from the growing list of methods and platforms now available for drug toxicity or efficacy testing. Simon Lavallée, Scientific Director, Biomarkers at Charles River, who will be leading an exhibitor session on the topic, likened the assortment of biomarkers to the universe of APPs one can download to their smartphone. The biomarkers may look attractive, but how functional, efficient or useful are they for the task at hand? And are they telling you what you really need to know.

We’ll be tuning in to find out.