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Environmental Factor

April 2011

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Dedication of new Tox21 robot system to test 10,000 chemicals for toxicity

By Robin Mackar
April 2011

Four lead program staff cut cake.

The lead program staff from each of the four agencies involved in Tox21 take a break from their busy schedule to enjoy the robot cake. Shown left to right are Tice, Bob Kavlock, Ph.D., from EPA, Austin, and David Jacobson-Kram, Ph.D., from FDA. (Photo courtesy of NCGC)

Four people cut ribbon wrapped around new robot area.

Getting ready to cut the ribbon for the new dedicated robot are Green, Birnbaum, Woodcock, and Lek Kadeli, acting deputy assistant administrator for management in EPA's Office of Research and Development. (Photo courtesy of NCGC)

Key players involved in the Tox21 effort gathered March 10 at the NIH Chemical Genomics Center (NCGC) in Rockville, Md. to dedicate a new high-speed robot screening system. The addition of this robot system will enable the screening of a 10,000 chemical library for potential toxicity and marks the beginning of a new phase of the ongoing Tox21( collaboration that is working to protect human health by improving how chemicals are tested in the United States.

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NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., joined fellow institute director Eric Green, M.D., Ph.D., of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and key Tox21 staff to dedicate the new system and provide a tour to about 40 invited guests. Tox21 includes a memorandum of understanding between the four agencies to more effectively predict how chemicals will affect human health and the environment. Among the guests were representatives from the U.S., European, and Korean committees for alternative testing methods.

Birnbaum and many of the other guests who came to the dedication immediately after  the 50th anniversary meeting of the Society of Toxicology (SOT) held in Washington D.C., commented on how the ceremony added to the SOT experience.

"I can't think of a better way to conclude SOT," Birnbaum said. "This robot truly exemplifies a remarkable collaboration effort between four federal organizations that showcases how we can all bring our strengths and resources to the table to build the framework for a new predictive toxicology." 

The 10,000 chemical library to be screened by the robot system include compounds found in industrial and consumer products, pesticides, food additives, and drugs. A thorough analysis of more than 200 government and non-government databases of chemicals and drugs used in the United States and abroad was conducted to select the chemicals in this library. Testing results will provide information useful for evaluating whether these chemicals have the potential to disrupt human body processes enough to lead to adverse health effects.

In his remarks at the dedication, Green said, "Tox21 has used robots to screen chemicals since 2008, but this new robotic system is dedicated to screening a much larger compound library."

The director of the NCGC at NHGRI, Christopher Austin, M.D., provided an overview of Tox21 efforts and added, "The Tox21 collaboration will transform our understanding of toxicology with the ability to test in a day what would take one year for a person to do by hand."

NTP Biomolecular Screening Branch Chief Ray Tice, Ph.D., a key player in the Tox21 efforts for NIEHS/NTP is enthusiastic about the promise that new tools like this bring to the field. "By screening these chemicals for effects in key cellular pathways, we will gain a much better understanding of the relationship between chemicals, genes, pathways, and disease. This will enable us to better prioritize compounds for more comprehensive testing, to identify mechanisms of action, and ultimately to develop predictive models for adverse effects in humans."

"Understanding the molecular basis of hazard is fundamental to the protection of human health and the environment," said Paul Anastas, Ph.D., assistant administrator of the EPA Office of Research and Development. "Tox21 allows us to obtain deeper understanding and more powerful insights, faster than ever before."

"This partnership builds upon FDA's commitment to developing new methods to evaluate the toxicity of the substances that we regulate," said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

For b-roll clips from the NCGC facility, visit Exit NIEHS.

(Robin Mackar is the news director in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

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