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Revolutionizing Toxicology


Federal agencies team up to supplant animal testing.

By Catherine Varmazis

April 1, 2008 | Several federal agencies, including the NIH and EPA, announced last month that they are launching a research collaboration that could ultimately reduce the reliance on animals for toxicity testing.

Testing of chemicals for toxicity has traditionally been performed on lab animals, but this process is "expensive, time-consuming, and the correlation to humans is not as precise as we would like," said Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, during the teleconference announcement.

The collaboration could revolutionize the way toxic chemicals are identified because the testing would be done on human cells rather than lab animals, and would be conducted using high-throughput screening technologies that were used in the Human Genome Project, and which are used by pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs.

The National Toxicology Program (NTP, part of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIEHS) has been in operation for about 30 years, and in all that time has tested just about 2500 chemical compounds on animals. But using the high-throughput screening technology, it is possible to test 100,000 compounds in 15 different concentrations in just two days, said Christopher Austin, director, NIH Chemical Genomics Center.

NIH Director Elias Zerhouni said there was a "eureka moment" about two years ago where researchers realized that high-throughput technology could be used in toxicology. "The NIEHS was looking at the issue of scaling up our ability to study many compounds because globalization is leading to the production of many, many hundreds of thousands of new compounds - and 1+1 became 3," said Zerhouni.

"We said, 'Instead of testing compounds just for therapeutic purposes, why not test them for their potential to disrupt normal physiology?'"

The legacy database of animal toxicology data at the NTP will help "tune" the new system in a series of iterative steps, according to John Bucher, associate director at the NTP, "The process will involve convincing the scientific community at large that the predictions and output of these assays are really making sense. Then the regulatory agencies will have to be involved at each step."

Samuel Wilson, acting director of the NIEHS and NTP, predicted that in the next two to three years, "We think there will be some examples where the high-throughput information can inform in a very meaningful way the priority-setting for cell model testing and then for use of animal models to confirm the information we glean from these other approaches."

The agencies have signed a five-year memorandum of understanding, but the collaboration is expected to extend beyond that, said Collins. Researchers from the agencies have already been collaborating for two years, testing the feasibility of this approach, but Zerhouni cautioned that animal testing cannot be abandoned overnight, and that animal and human-cell testing will coexist for a number of years.

The project is discussed in a paper published on Feb. 15, 2008, in Science

Further Reading:
Collins, F.S. et al. 2008. Transforming Environmental Health Protection. Science. 319. 906 - 907

 

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 This article appeared in Bio-IT World Magazine.
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