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Scientists, Corporations and Other Stakeholders Call for a Focused Approach to Modernizing Safety Testing of Chemicals

New testing methods will be more efficient, cost-effective, human-relevant and reduce use of animals

Stakeholders in industry, government, academia and the nonprofit sector met in Washington, D.C. last week and called for a more targeted implementation of a proposal to modernize the way chemicals are tested for safety. The symposium was coordinated by The Humane Society of the United States on behalf of the Human Toxicology Project Consortium, a group dedicated to revamping chemical toxicity testing.

The consortium promotes the implementation of a 2007 National Academy of Sciences proposal to transform safety testing to achieve better protection of human health, lower testing costs, shorter testing times, and a dramatic reduction (if not full replacement) of animal use for testing. The participants, drawn from North America and Europe, called for a more strategic and better coordinated implementation of this proposal.

The symposium — entitled “Accelerating Implementation of the National Research Council Vision for Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century” — was held Nov. 9-10 at Gallaudet University. The National Research Council is the branch of the National Academy of Sciences that produced the 2007 proposal.

Representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, Dow, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever were among the speakers.

“Several laudable research and development projects are seeking to modernize the field of toxicity testing in various ways,” said Martin Stephens, Ph.D., HSUS vice president for animal research issues. “However, they are focused primarily on enhancing the current paradigm of chemical safety testing, whereas the National Academy of Sciences’ proposal calls for a completely new approach.”

Under the NAS proposal, all routine chemical testing would be carried out on human cells or tissues. Instead of exposing animals to a chemical and then monitoring the resulting overt injuries to the animal, the report recommends assessing—in the test tube—a chemicals’ ability to disrupt one or more of the human body’s key biological pathways. The idea is that these disruptions are precursors to the overt injuries or toxicities that chemicals may cause.

Some ongoing projects to modernize toxicity testing use robots and miniaturized apparatus, generating enormous quantities of data over the course of days, rather than the weeks, months or longer that is characteristic of animal testing. Under the NAS vision, the results of this testing, together with additional data, would inform a sophisticated, computer-based modeling of the workings of the human body to produce scientifically valid risk assessments.

For the vision of 21st century toxicology to become a reality, human biological pathways must be understood and mapped, and chemical disruptions of these pathways need to be modeled in cell-based tests. The necessary research and development – which we term the Human Toxicology Project - is expected to take one to two decades to complete and cost $2 billion or more. Corporate, government and private institutions are currently spending about $200 million a year on various attempts to replace animal test methods with alternatives.

Coordinating those efforts around the NAS vision would lead to a revolution in biological understanding and biotechnology akin to that produced by the Human Genome Project.

The end result will be a sophisticated new approach to chemical safety assessment that is grounded in a modern understanding of human biology and the latest technological advances in computers and modeling. Public health will be better protected and animals will be spared from potential suffering.

Facts

  • The current members of the Human Toxicology Project Consortium include several corporations (Dow, DuPont, ExxonMobil, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Unilever); the Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences; and The Humane Society of the United States and two of its affiliates, the Humane Society Legislative Fund and Humane Society International.
  • The National Academy of Sciences’ report is entitled “Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century, A Vision and a Strategy.” HSUS’s Stephens was a member of the committee that developed the report.
  • The “Human Toxicology Project” in the Consortium’s name refers to the focused research and development that will be needed to implement the NAS vision, and is intended to echo the “Human Genome Project”—the well- funded and coordinated effort of the 1990s and early 2000s to sequence the human genome.
  • The workshop recommendations will be published in a scientific paper in the scientific literature and presented at scientific meetings.

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The Humane Society of the United States is the nation's largest animal protection organization — backed by 11 million Americans, or one of every 28. For more than a half-century, The HSUS has been fighting for the protection of all animals through advocacy, education and hands-on programs. Celebrating animals and confronting cruelty — On the Web at humanesociety.org.