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January 2011

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Tice talks Tox21

By Ernie Hood
January 2011

As a follow-up to the BSC review of the NTP Biomolecular Screening Branch (BSB), Chief Ray Tice, Ph.D., responded to several questions about Tox21 and its future directions.

One of the threads that emerged during the meeting was the need to communicate with the lay public about Tox21. Given the platform to do so, what would you most like to put forth?

Basically, we want the lay public to understand the purpose and goals of Tox21; to appreciate that currently we are conducting a research program since we do not yet have enough information to demonstrate the adequacy of using data from assays using cultured cells and lower organisms to identify compounds that are harmful to humans, other animals, and the environment; and to understand it will likely be several to many years before there are sufficient data for the kind of critical evaluation needed.

How important is Tox21 to NTP and NIEHS? What role does it play, and how do you think that will evolve?

The purpose of Tox21 is to support the evolution of toxicology from a predominantly observational science at the level of disease-specific models to a predominantly predictive science focused upon a broad inclusion of target-specific, mechanism-based, biological observations using cultured cells, 3D model tissues, and phylogenetically lower organisms. This can only be accomplished if we utilize the complementary expertise and capabilities of multiple organizations-no single organization could succeed in this endeavor by itself. The knowledge bases and informatics tools developed to support this effort will be used by the NIEHS/NTP to gain a much better understanding of the relationship between compounds, genes, pathways and disease, in order to prioritize compounds for more comprehensive testing, to identify mechanisms of action, and to develop predictive models of human disease.

How has the interagency collaboration among the partners worked out?

Absolutely great. We are all committed to a common goal, and where our respective approaches differ, they differ in a way that is complementary rather than in conflict. It's difficult for me to imagine working with a better group of scientists.

It seems from the presentations at the BSC meeting that Tox21 has made remarkable progress in a very short period of time.

I agree. We have been working on Tox21-related efforts since late 2004, but it's only since the first MOU was signed in February 2008 that we established a formal infrastructure to integrate our respective Tox21 activities. Given that, I believe that our success to date has largely been due to, first, the 2007 release of the National Academy of Sciences report called "Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy." Second, I would cite the very active support of senior management at the different federal agencies participating in Tox21, along with the commitment of the Tox21 staff to a common goal. Finally, there has been the recognition of the international scientific community that this is an effort worthy of support.

I do think we're making faster progress than I originally anticipated, but like all great endeavors, we might encounter a major obstacle tomorrow or the next day that will require brand new approaches for moving Tox21 forward.

What's next for Tox21?

We plan to expand our interactions with other individuals and organizations, whether government, academic, or private, in order to accelerate the acquisition of data and the development of new tools. We will keep focused on our overall Phase II strategy, while remaining flexible in the event that a major advance in basic biology, medicine, or toxicology might necessitate a shift in focus. We will continue to make sure that all of the data we collect are made openly accessible to the international scientific community as quickly as possible. And of course we will continue to try to make sense out of the data we have collected.

(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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