— -- An ambitious program announced Thursday by a coalition of government agencies could lead to the end of animal testing to evaluate the safety for humans 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 develop and implement the new methods. The collaboration is described 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.
The Humane Society and other activist groups have long protested the use of animals to test the safety of chemicals, particularly those used in cosmetics and other personal products. The agencies noted that the public's "unease" with animal testing, in addition to a growing number of new chemicals and high testing costs, fueled the new collaboration.
Although there are no actual figures, Stephens says his "best guess" would be that about 10 million animals a year are used in toxicity testing, mostly mice, rats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and then lesser numbers of dogs, monkeys and other species.
Historically, toxicity has been identified by injecting chemicals into animals and seeing whether they were harmed.
"It was expensive, time-consuming, used animals in large numbers, and it didn't always work," says Francis Collins, director of the NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute.
The new systems the agencies hope to use rely on human cells grown in test tubes and computer-driven testing machines. They allow the scientists to examine potentially toxic compounds in the lab rather than injecting them into animals.