A Rutgers–Camden professor is developing a comprehensive data system that can be used as a valuable computational tool for researchers by providing them with access to chemical toxicity information.
Hao Zhu, an assistant professor of chemistry, is building the “automated profiling system” from existing bioassay data from public resources. The new chemical toxicity profiles can help scientists who are seeking information on chemicals of specific environmental or pharmaceutical interest.
“There exists a very complicated, large-scale database of information and my research is to create an organized profile of chemical compounds that brings data together from the two methods used for predictive toxicity: in vitro methodology and computational methodology,” Zhu says.
Zhu’s work is being funded by a three-year, $464,983 grant from the National Institutes of Health. The online database will be housed on a Rutgers–Camden server.
An in-vitro method for testing chemical toxicity is used by scientists to observe how toxic chemical compounds induce changes in a cell. Another method utilizes computational models to predict toxicity directly from chemical structures. Both methods are alternatives to traditional toxicity testing, which has become controversial because the method requires animal testing.
Zhu is taking existing in-vitro data and categorizing and prioritizing it for the new database.
“The in-vitro assays have generated a lot of data,” Zhu says. “Knowing chemical toxicity is very important to drug development because we need to know the maximum dose that can be given to a patient so that it does not have harmful effects.”
Zhu says he believes that information gained from in-vitro testing and from computational model predictions does not paint a complete picture of chemical toxicity when taken separately, but when combined together, the data can create a better, more comprehensive idea of how animal bodies react with certain chemical compounds.
“Tens of thousands of compounds have been tested,” he says. “All compounds have varying degrees of toxicity. I’m trying to extract the useful information from thousands of tests that have already been done.”
Zhu, a Cherry Hill resident, earned his bachelor’s degree from Jilin University in China, his master’s degree from Peking University in China, and his doctoral degree from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. He is the author of various refereed papers and three book chapters, including his most recent chapter, “Computers Instead of Cells: Computational Modeling of Chemical Toxicity,” which appears in Reducing, Refining, and Replacing the Use of Animals in Toxicity Testing (Royal Society of Chemistry Press, 2013).