By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
An ambitious program announced today by a coalition of government agencies could lead to the end of animal testing to evaluate the safety of new chemicals and drugs.
Three agencies -- the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Toxicology Program and the National Institutes of Health -- have signed a "Memorandum of Understanding" to begin developing the new methods. The collaboration is described in a paper in today's edition of the journal Science.
The agreement is a "milestone" says Martin Stephens of the Humane Society of the United States. "We believe this is the beginning of the end for animal testing. We think the (conversion) process will take about 10 years." The agencies acknowledge that full implementation of the shift in toxicity testing could take years because it will require scientific validation of the new approaches.
Using human cells grown in test tubes and computer-driven testing machines, the scientists will eventually examine potentially toxic compounds in the lab rather than injecting them into mice, rats and rabbits and waiting to see if the animals die.
The EPA has already begun evaluating 300 chemicals using the new methods. The first phase should be finished this year, says Robert Kavlok, director of the National Center for Computational Toxicology.
Thousands of chemicals can be tested at one time in this way, a great advance over slow, expensive animal testing. It's done in a 3-by-5- inch glass tray with 1,536 tiny wells, each a fraction of a millimeter across, says Christopher Austin, director of NIH's ChemicalGenomics Center.
A few hundred human cells grown in a test tube go into each well. Then, guided by a computer, the testing machine drips a different chemical into each well. After some time has passed, the machine shines a laser through each well to see how many cells remain. A computer analyzes the toxicity of each compound based on how the cells react.
For comparison, it's taken the EPA 30 years to rigorously test 2,500 potentially toxic compounds, says Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health.
All the data produced will be put into a public database. "We think it is very important for the entire public worldwide to have access to these very precious experimental results," says Kavlock.
It's the fruit of work begun in 2005 by EPA and the National Toxicological Program to speed up toxicological testing. That resulted in a report by the National Research Council last year laying out how it might be done.
To convert from animal to lab testing, the federal agencies will start with compounds previously tested on animals to confirm that the cell-based tests are accurate, says Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.
This won't mean that animal testing will disappear overnight, but it signals the beginning of the end, says Zerhouni.
Rodents and primates around the world can breathe a little easier.
Ditto animal rights activists who have long opposed testing drugs and conducting other experiments on animals. Top officials from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Thursday announced a five-year deal promising to share technology, information and other resources that will improve the toxicity testing of chemical compounds used in food, medicine and other products using robots rather than lab animals.
This joint effort will include experts from the NIH National Toxicology Program (NTP), high-speed, automated screening robots at the NIH Chemical Genomics Center and computational toxicology capabilities available at the EPA Office of Research and Development's National Center for Computational Toxicology (NCCT).
"Today we want to report to you this remarkable collaboration," Elias Zerhouni, director of the NIH, said during a teleconference with reporters held to announce the groundbreaking agreement. He added that the effort--designed to expand the use of in vitro testing of human cells and cellular components to identify chemicals with toxic effects--represents the "birth of a new approach to a crucial problem in public health."
The agencies are hoping to coordinate their resources to better identify toxicity pathways, select chemicals for testing, analyze and interpret data, and promote their findings to scientific and regulatory communities. This is expected to generate data more relevant to humans, expand the number of chemicals tested and reduce the time, money and number of animals involved in current lab studies.
The collective budget is yet to be determined, the agencies say. Animal testing has always been a sore point for scientists and animal-rights advocates, following some high-profile cases of mistreatment of lab animals, such as monkeys discovered in 1981 at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Md., in deplorable conditions. One of the primary ways to test the toxicology of a compound has been to inject it into a lab animal, see if the animal gets sick, and then conduct an autopsy to observe the damage done to their internal organs. (For more on this, click here. Additional information on animal rights legislation can be found here.)