In a move that should delight animal lovers, two U.S. government agencies have launched an initiative to develop robotic tools to reduce and perhaps replace the use of animals in chemical toxicity tests.
During a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health announced the signing of a five-year Memorandum of Understanding to promote the development and implementation of tools to speed up chemical tests, reduce their cost, and lower the number of animal tests required.
The announcement drew praise from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "The announcement of the collaboration is a definite positive step forward," said Kate Willett, Ph.D., PETA's science-policy adviser. "It's a small step forward, but it's definitely a move in the right direction."
According to an article in Friday's issue of Science magazine, the goal is a technology known as high-throughput screening (HTS). The robotic devices will expose various types of cells to varying concentrations of chemicals, and for various periods of exposure. Unlike animal tests, which are slow and expensive, HTS offers the prospect of successfully running hundreds of thousands of toxicity tests per day.
"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."
HTS is already used extensively in the pharmaceutical industry to speed up its search for new drugs. The technology can be used in reverse to determine toxicity by counting the number of cells killed by a particular chemical, or by using cellular markers to measure damage.
Willett said much of the impetus came from a 2007 National Research Council report, Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy.
"That report," she said, "outlines a complete revolution in the way toxicity testing is done, one that is almost entirely based on nonanimal methods. This is a realization that Europe came to some years ago, and I think the EPA and NIH see this collaboration as an opportunity to show that the U.S. is getting on board."
Despite the enthusiastic support for moving away from animal testing, there are unanswered questions about the five-year agreement. No decision, for instance, has been made about how much EPA and NIH will contribute to the program's budget. It is also not clear how quickly HTS will replace animal screening, and to what extent. Scientists warned that it may not be possible to entirely replace animal testing.
More significantly, extensive testing still needs to be done to determine if the results of HTS are as reliable and accurate as those derived from animal testing. Currently, scientists are running experiments to compare the results of HTS to known animal toxicity results. The comparisons will enable scientists to determine if HTS is a reliable source of toxicity data and to tweak the process as necessary.