ONTOX celebrates International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Every year, 11 February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating women’s vital role in science and promoting gender equality in STEM fields. We honour this day by highlighting the ONTOX women scientists’ contributions to the advancement of toxicology.

ONTOX project brings together a diverse group of experts, including female scientists and researchers from multiple countries, to solve significant challenges in animal-free toxicity testing of chemicals. 

Overall, 116 scientists are working on achieving the ONTOX vision, and 43 are women at the various stages of career development and expertise in the New Approach Methodologies (NAMs) development.  

This article presents several ONTOX female scientists who shared their recent accomplishments and contributions towards finding solutions for animal-free science on the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.  

Prof. Liesbet Geris

Liesbet Geris is a Biomechanics and Computational Tissue Engineering Professor at the University de Liège and KU Leuven in Belgium, the scientific coordinator of the Prometheus platform for Skeletal Tissue Engineering and the Executive Director of the Virtual Physiological Human Institute

In ONTOX, Liesbet focuses on the Biological domain and Data Integration, Ontology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) Work Package. She is the task leader for establishing quantitative physiological maps for the liver, kidneys, and developing brain and ontologies for the selected systemic, repeated dose toxicity effects, the harmful effects that occur when a person is repeatedly exposed to a substance over a period of time.

“In silico tools in the context of regenerative medicine are still somewhat ‘the new kid on the block’. Receiving a prestigious award such as this one is not only a great recognition of the work we are doing, it also provides additional visibility to our budding field. Hence, the award will not only provide a stimulus to the continuation of our own work, but on a broader scale, it is also an important boost to realising the full potential of in silico regenerative medicine in general.”

Liesbet Geris comments on AstraZeneca Award

In 2022, Liesbet won one of the prominent AstraZeneca Awards for her outstanding work in developing new in silico strategies in the category “New strategies in regenerative medicine”. She was also chosen to be amongst InspiringFifty Belgium, the most inspirational women in the Belgian tech industry.

Liesbet Geris and AstraZeneca Award 2022 granted for the category “New strategies in regenerative medicine”.

Most recently, Liesbet was awarded an ERC Consolidator grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for her INSTant CARMA project, which aims to harness the power of in silico assays to study the onset and progression of osteoarthritis and to design therapies using medicines and tissue engineering. 

Dr.rer.nat., Ing. Helena Kanďárová, ERT

Helena Kanďárová is the Senior Scientist at the Institute of Experimental Pharmacology & Toxicology, Centre of Experimental Medicine, Slovak Academy of Sciences (IEPT CEM SAS) and the Lecturer at the Faculty of Chemical and Food Technology STU in Bratislava, Slovakia. She also serves as President of the European Society of Toxicology In Vitro (ESTIV), Vice-president of SETOX, EPAA Mirror Group member, the national expert in the OECD working groups, and National PARERE and SK-NETVAL laboratory representative.  

As a skilful science communicator, she joined the ONTOX project as Deputy coordinator for dissemination, exploitation, communication and data management and leader of the Communication Work Package.

In 2022, Helena obtained two prestigious awards for her work on the development and validation of alternative methods that significantly contributed to the reduction and  replacement of animal experiments in the field of chemicals, drugs and medical devices. Namely Björn Ekwall Memorial Award and EUROTOX Lecture award.

Björn Ekwall Memorial Award 2022 granted to Helena Kanďárová. On the photo with Prof. Stina Oredsson, President of the Björn Ekwall Memorial Foundation.

The Society of Toxicologists of Ukraine awarded Dr. Kanďárová at the ESTIV 2022 Congress by Commemorative medal for her significant contribution to the development of toxicology and her active civic position in supporting scientists from Ukraine in the continuation of their research activities in conditions of war.

The Commemorative medal was given to Helena Kanďárová by members of the Society of Toxicologists of Ukraine. From the left: Yana Kolianchuk, Helena Kanďárová, Serhii Kolesnyk and Nataliia Bubalo.

At the beginning of 2023, Helena was elected by the academic assembly of IEPT as the Scientific Director at the Institute of Experimental Pharmacology and Toxicology. She is the second female director in the 75 years history of the Institute after the internationally recognised Czechoslovak pharmacologist Prof. Helena Rašková.

Prof. Roos Masereeuw, ERT

Roos Masereeuw is a Professor of Experimental Pharmacology at Utrecht University

Roos is the Leader of the ONTOX Nephrotoxicity Work Package. She aims to set up and characterise existing in vitro assays and develop novel in vitro assays that can detect molecular initiating events and key events leading to tubular necrosis and crystallopathy, specific conditions affecting the kidneys. Her team will perform in vitro testing of chemicals selected by AI to determine their impact on the kidneys.

Recently, Roos revealed an exciting announcement about starting the new position of Vice-dean of Research at Utrecht University, where she will further direct the excellent science of this Netherland public university. 

Prof. Ellen Fritsche, MD

Ellen Fritsche is an Environmental Toxicology Professor affiliated with the Heinrich-Heine-University and a visiting professor at the Zhejiang Chinese Medical University. She is a group leader at the IUF–Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine

In ONTOX, she is the Leader of the Developmental Neurotoxicity Work Package, working on the establishment and characterisation of in vitro assays detecting key events leading to the development of decreased cognition in children after prenatal exposure to chemicals.

Last year Ellen co-founded a start-up company DNTOX focusing on bioanalytical animal-free screening of chemicals regarding their potential to disturb brain development and cause developmental neurotoxicity. The DNTOX was awarded in BioRiver Boost and Science4Life Venture Cup start-up competitions.

Dr. Maria Kalyva

Maria Kalyva is the Data and Statistical Analyst in the Section for Chemical Toxicology at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Maria is a member of the ONTOX Risk Assessment and Implementation Work Package. She is working on the exposure and risk assessment performance for ONTOX-relevant chemicals. She is also contributing to developing a risk assessment protocol with industrial and regulatory stakeholders to determine the level of concern for a given chemical and hazard, resulting in a probabilistic risk assessment that provides a quantitative risk analysis.

Maria and her team recently finished a protocol for a systematic scoping review describing methods and tools for assessing chemical exposure in humans.

She and her team currently await the publishing of an essential paper on existing human chemical exposure methods in chemicals from the scientific literature.

“Applying statistical analysis methods on exposure assessments of chemicals in humans, using biomedical research data can increase the accuracy of predictions and risk, affecting decision making in public health and therefore is highly motivating to me. Predictive physiologically based pharmacokinetic modelling is my new challenge, as it can link internal exposure of chemicals to toxicity.” 

Maria Kalyva describes the motivations for her endeavour

Dr. Alexandra Maertens

Alexandra Maertens is the Assistant Scientist and Head of the Green Toxicology and Big Data initiative at the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Furthermore, she is a Toxicologist at the Consortium for Environmental Risk Management and Instructor at Brandeis University.

Alexandra coordinates ONTOX Data Integration, Ontology and AI Work Package. She focuses on chemoinformatics and biological data integration to better understand the relationship between chemicals and biological systems and to predict the effects of chemicals on biological processes.

In 2022, she first authored a crucial white paper on Probabilistic Risk Assessment and organised the respective ONTOX workshop, for which she also drafted the report.

“Probabilistic Risk Assessment is a leading concept for ONTOX to integrate evidence. Alex has taken an important role as task leader to revive this concept and combine it with AI.”

Thomas Hartung, ONTOX Data Integration, Ontology and AI Work Package Leader, remarks on Alexandra Maertens’s work
Alexandra Maertens and team during the Probabilistic Risk Assessment Workshop.

Dr. Jiang Jian

Jiang Jian is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the In Vitro Toxicology and Dermato-Cosmetology (IVTD) team affiliated with the Department of Pharmaceutical and Pharmacological Sciences of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Jiang works for the ONTOX Hepatotoxicity Work Package. She focuses on developing and applying mechanism-based and human-relevant liver cell models for in vitro hepatotoxicity testing of drugs and other chemicals.

Jiang was lately awarded the Toxicology in vitro/Elsevier Best Poster Award for the poster “Applying machine learning approaches to identify key genes associated with drug-induced cholestasis”. Award was presented during the ESTIV Congress in November 2022.

“Machine learning models are sophisticated algorithms that enable computers to learn from data, unravel embedded patterns and make predictions. Applying machine learning methods to high-dimensional transcriptomic data offers an opportunity to better predict adverse effects after chemical exposures. I am grateful to receive this acknowledgement and glad to see the scientific community has recognised my work.”

Jiang Jian on Toxicology in vitro/Elsevier Best Poster Award
Jiang Jian and her poster awarded by Toxicology in vitro/Elsevier Best Poster Award.

Dr. Eliška Kuchovská

Eliška Kuchovská is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Alternative method development for environmental toxicity testing at the IUF–Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine

In ONTOX, Eliška is the Deputy Leader of the Developmental Neurotoxicity (DNT) Work Package. She is responsible for establishing and characterising DNT in vitro assays and subsequent targeted testing relevant to cognitive function defects. 

Eliška won the Best Poster Award at the ASPIS Open Symposium for the poster “In vitro New Approach Methodologies (NAMs) for assessing effects of chemicals leading to cognitive function defects in children – the contribution of the ONTOX project“.

“I am thrilled and proud that our work on in vitro NAMs for developmental neurotoxicity testing was awarded. This work enhances the paradigm change in human toxicology, aiming for a more reliable, human-relevant, ethical, and sustainable risk assessment of chemicals.”

Eliška Kuchovská about the ASPIS Open Symposium 2022 Best Poster Award
Eliška Kuchovská and her poster that was presented and awarded at the ASPIS Open Symposium 2022.

Anouk Verhoeven

Anouk Verhoeven is a PhD Researcher in the In Vitro Toxicology and Dermato-Cosmetology (IVTD) team affiliated with the Department of Pharmaceutical and Pharmacological Sciences of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Anouk contributes to the research tasks in the ONTOX Hepatotoxicity Work Package, where her responsibility is in vitro detection of steatotic chemicals that cause fat accumulation in the liver.

During the ESTIV Congress 2022, Anouk gained Björn Ekwall Memorial Foundation (BEMF) student travel bursary for the poster “An updated adverse outcome pathway network for chemical-induced liver steatosis“.

Anouk Verhoeven is presenting the poster at the ESTIV Congress 2022.

ONTOX honours all its scientists

ONTOX is proud of all its scientists for their significant contributions to the NAMs and concepts of Next Generation Risk Assessment that will help reduce and replace animal testing whenever possible.