Toxicological research is often complex, time-consuming, resource-intensive, and difficult to effectively share and communicate. For example, a study on a single chemical can take years to complete and cost millions. At the Dec. 3–4 meeting of the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Board of Scientific Counselors, committee members learned how the NIEHS Division of the NTP (DNTP) is addressing those problems and promoting innovation.
DNTP seeks to tackle major public health challenges and enhance its scientific capabilities, as the organization moves from observational to predictive toxicology. Leaders say the group is focused on fine-tuning nonanimal research approaches, improving the design of hypothesis-driven animal studies, and more effectively demonstrating how those experiments relate to human health. Additionally, DNTP leadership is focused on improving databases to standardize how results are shared.
They hope that along the way, efficiency will increase, costs will decrease, and key information will be made available at a faster pace.
Sharing findings with the public
“We’ve looked critically at our processes to make sure that we can not only take on tough scientific problems, but also deliver our products in the near term so that people can use them,” said DNTP Scientific Director Brian Berridge, D.V.M, Ph.D.
Those products include various technical reports, monographs, and public health documents, with topics ranging from cell phone radiofrequency radiation to fluoride.
In the past year, people viewed the program’s website 1.1 million times, indicating strong demand for trusted toxicological information. In addition, some federal agencies and states used research that DNTP produced to limit harmful exposures and communicate potential hazards with the public.
“We are very much into developing novel tools and strategies not just for the sake of doing so, but rather to aid our ability to solve more and more complex problems,” noted Berridge.
Prioritizing disease-based toxicology is one such novel strategy. DNTP leaders previously established what they call Health Effects Innovation Programs to better understand how the environment can contribute to — and potentially worsen — common diseases. During the board meeting, members learned about programs related to cardiovascular health and neurodevelopment.
“The cardiovascular system was identified as a strategic area of focus because we recognize that chronic progressive cardiovascular disease is one of the primary causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide,” explained Brandy Beverly, Ph.D., a health scientist in the DNTP Office of Health Assessment and Translation.
“Despite growing evidence that environmental exposures might be contributing to the onset or progression of this disease, current approaches don’t really include specific assessments for cardiovascular bioactivity and hazards,” noted Beverly.
DNTP will use scientific literature and databases to learn how a given exposure may affect biological mechanisms involved in cardiovascular disease, and to identify which substances may be especially hazardous. The organization also will develop new testing methodologies and research tools to assess how chemicals may affect cardiovascular health.
“Developmental neurotoxicity is a major issue not only in the United States but also globally,” said Mamta Behl, Ph.D., a DNTP neurotoxicologist. “According to the World Health Organization, about 15-20% of children are diagnosed with some form of neurodevelopmental condition, such as autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.”
Behl noted that most chemicals have not been tested for their effects on brain development, and the average study takes two years to complete and costs a couple of million dollars. DNTP uses animal and cell-based models, neuroimaging, computational tools, and innovative behavioral approaches to more efficiently identify chemicals that affect neurodevelopmental processes. The goal is to link biological effects from exposures to functional changes in the brain.
“We recognize that we have a long journey ahead in preventing neurodevelopmental disorders [caused by] environmental factors, but we are confident that along with our partners, including global stakeholders, we will make it there eventually,” said Behl.
(Jesse Saffron, J.D., is a media relations coordinator for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)