Testing the safety of chemicals ranging from pesticides to household cleaners will benefit from new technologies and a plan for collaboration, according to federal scientists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who has announced a new toxicity testing agreement.
The concept behind this agreement is highlighted in the Feb. 15, 2008 issue of the journal "Science".
"I launched the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research five years ago to create collaborations between institutes and centers on big projects that none of them could do alone. But I never envisioned a trans-agency collaboration testing for environmental toxins," said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D.
"This research collaboration has the potential to make crucial discoveries that will protect the public health by identifying and understanding chemical toxicants to which people are exposed."
Two NIH institutes have formed a collaboration with the EPA to use the NIH Chemical Genomics Center's (NCGC) high-speed, automated screening robots to test suspected toxic compounds using cells and isolated molecular targets instead of laboratory animals.
This new, trans-agency collaboration is anticipated to generate data more relevant to humans; expand the number of chemicals that are tested; and reduce the time, money and number of animals involved in testing. Full implementation of the hoped-for paradigm shift in toxicity testing will require validation of the new approaches, a substantial effort that could consume many years.
This collaboration is being made possible through a newly signed five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which leverages the strengths of each organization.
The MOU builds on the experimental toxicology expertise at the National Toxicology Program (NTP), headquartered at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), NIH; the high-throughput technology at NCGC, managed by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), NIH; and the computational toxicology capabilities at the EPA's recently formed National Center for Computational Toxicology (NCCT).
The MOU provides for sample and information sharing necessary to more rapidly and effectively identify chemicals that might pose possible risks to the health of humans and animals and to the environment. It addresses opportunities for coordination in four basic areas related to achieving the toxicant testing goals, including: identification of toxicity pathways; selection of chemicals for testing; analysis and interpretation of data; and outreach to the scientific and regulatory communities. The collective budget is yet to be determined.
The MOU and the plans articulated in the Science article provide a framework to implement the long-range vision outlined in the 2007 National Research Council (NRC) report, "Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy", which calls for a collaborative effort across the toxicology community to rely less on animal studies and more on in vitro tests using human cells and cellular components to identify chemicals with toxic effects.
Importantly, the strategy calls for improvements in dose-response research, which will help predict toxicity at exposures that humans may encounter.