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Alternatives to animal testing gaining ground

Researchers, regulators develop new systems for experiments

August 26, 2010|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

He points to a 2007 National Academy of Sciences report that outlined the limitations of animal testing and proposed a new focus on technology. The EPA, the National Institutes of Health's National Toxicology Program and Chemical Genomics Center, and recently the FDA signed on to fund and study non-animal testing.

For example, the government agencies are developing a computer system that could eventually be used by pharmaceutical companies to weed out harmful drugs by gauging their toxicity based on the toxicity of failed drugs. So far, the database has information on 10,000 drugs.

The EPA will soon begin using the computer program, called Tox21, to test other chemicals for their potential as cancer-causers or endocrine-disruptors, which mimic hormones and disrupt normal body functions, said Robert J. Kavlock, director of the EPA's National Center for Computational Toxicology.

Once those with potential to cause disease are identified, they can jump to the head of the line for the normal course of testing. This could help clear the worst offenders from the backlog of untested chemicals already used in products.

Kavlock said pharmaceutical companies could also drop dangerous chemicals and drugs faster, before they get to human clinical trials, saving time and money. A chemical used in food production, for example, costs $6 million to $10 million to test. Computer tests would cost more like $20,000, he said.

This system could become the norm — and the law. Prioritizing chemicals for testing has been included in a bill making its way through Congress to revamp the Toxic Substances Control Act. The bill generally gives the EPA more authority to regulate existing and new chemicals.

Kavlock said if the computer modeling eventually proves reliable, and other high-tech means of testing drugs and chemicals continue to be developed, it will mean fewer or no animal tests.

"Now the gold standard is using animals," he said. "But there is a collective recognition that we need to do better than we're doing. ... We're working on the science. And we're getting people comfortable with it."



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