Why a Website Devoted to Non-animal Methods for Toxicity Testing?

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In the Spotlight

Why a Website Devoted to Non-animal Methods for Toxicity Testing?

Published: December 6, 2007
There are clear signs that toxicity testing is in the early stages of a paradigm shift away from a reliance on in vivo methods and towards the use of non-animal methods. Some of these signs include the National Research Council recently issued vision and strategy for the future of toxicity testing1, the European Union’s Cosmetics Directive and its impending ban on animal testing of cosmetics2, the efforts and successes of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods3, the work and mission of the European (government/industry) Partnership for Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing4, the vision and roadmap of the U.S. National Toxicology Program5, and the many forward-looking presentations at the Sixth World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences.6

This shift away from animal-based methods is driven by a combination of factors related to science, public health, and animal welfare, as well as sheer practicalities. Indeed, the various stakeholders in toxicity testing—from industry, government, academia, or non-governmental organizations—can each pick and choose the reasons they are interested in the shift towards non-animal approaches. The list of reasons is compelling. The in vitro and in silico approaches promise to provide expanded coverage of chemicals, life stages, and subpopulations; offer greater human relevance; incorporate the latest advances in biology and technology; and increasingly reduce, and ultimately possibly eliminate, our reliance on animal-based methods.

Recent advances in basic science — including the ability to analyze gene and protein expression on a global basis, the ability to genetically modify cells and lower organisms to make their responses more relevant to the prediction of toxicity in humans, and ever-increasing computational power to model chemico-biological interactions – are making it possible to make headway on alternative methods in areas that had heretofore been too complex to adequately model in vitro. It is possible that these new technologies will support the development of replacement assays that are improvements, not just substitutes, for existing animal models. We are excited by these possibilities; they represent a tectonic shift in the science of toxicology as the moral forces of assuring safety and reducing animal use cease to be in (apparent) conflict and start to become synergistic.

As the long-term shift away from animal testing gains momentum, we anticipate that the 3Rs community will invest relatively more effort into replacement as the primary means of reducing animal numbers and suffering in toxicity testing. Indeed, at least one organization has already announced such a shift in priority.7 No disparagement of refinement or reduction is intended. We simply believe that, in the field of toxicity testing in the early 21st century, replacement should be the priority. Even William Russell and Rex Burch, the architects of the 3Rs approach, wrote that “Refinement is never enough, and we should always seek further reductions and if possible replacement. …Replacement is always a satisfactory answer.8

For these and other reasons, we believe the time is right for an initiative to accelerate the exchange of information and ideas among government regulators, industry toxicologists, academic scientists, contract testing laboratories, the 3Rs community, and others interested in advancing non-animal testing methods. We seek to accomplish this with AltTox.org, a new interactive website that encourages the exchange of technical and policy information on in vitro and in silico methods, as well as integrated testing strategies that incorporate these methods.

AltTox seeks to create an online community that will, through its interactions, stimulate progress internationally in the development, validation, and acceptance of non-animal methods, with the goals of decreasing reliance on animal-based safety testing and better safeguarding public health.

As with any website, AltTox offers information about a variety of topics. Our topics include various toxicity endpoints and tests, new technologies, relevant programs and policies, and overarching challenges and opportunities, among others. However, we are particularly excited by two features of AltTox, namely, our Discussion Forums and Way Forward Commentaries. The Forums offer a platform for interactive discussion of the issues, across geography, stakeholder sectors, etc. We know of no similar resource serving this purpose. The scope of the Forums includes past, present, and possible future activities relevant to the development, validation, peer review, regulatory acceptance, and implementation of non-animal methods for assessing the toxic effects of substances in particular topic areas. Postings are welcome on issues related to policy as well as technical aspects of toxicity testing, and on aspects of in vivo testing that are relevant to non-animal methods.

We are also excited about another AltTox feature: Way Forward Commentaries from invited experts. At the launch of AltTox (mid-November 2007) we have over 30 such commentaries on over a dozen topics. We hope these will help stir debate, clarify issues, and help point the way forward.

We also hope the diversity of Discussion Forums and Way Forward Commentaries, not to mention the other website content, coaxes stakeholders to move beyond their specialties and to sample developments in related fields of non-animal methods.

Other features planned for AltTox include online workshops and virtual meetings.

Given its targeted scope—non-animal methods of toxicity testing—AltTox is not intended to take the place of other website providing more comprehensive information about the 3Rs in toxicology or, indeed, in biomedical research and education.9 Similarly, AltTox is not intended to take the place of relevant journals, workshops, etc., but rather to supplement these tools.

Some may argue, “Why another communications tool? We just need to get on with the work of advancing the vision of animal-free toxicology.” We are sympathetic to this view, but we believe that AltTox will provide a platform that will help the community clarify that vision, identify challenges and opportunities, and inspire others to take action.

The AltTox Management Team realizes that no human undertaking is free from bias. We realize, for example, that the website’s content currently is disproportionately focused on the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe. We hope to remedy this geographic bias with expanded coverage of other regions. Similarly, we have exercised our judgment in deciding which field of toxicity testing and which technologies were mature enough to warrant their own Discussion Forums. Some readers will no doubt disagree with our decisions in this regard.

Nor are human undertakings free from outright error. We have striven to minimize the errors on the site prior to going “live” but no doubt readers will notice some that escaped our attention. Please let us know when you see errors of commission or omission.

Readers may take some comfort in knowing that we have sought to limit our bias and errors by establishing an editorial board of subject matter experts to oversee the website content and serve as Forum moderators. And we have sought Way Forward Commentaries from a wide variety of experts.

AltTox provides a common platform in which diverse stakeholders can discuss the challenges they face and the efforts needed to overcome them. It seeks to breakdown artificial barriers among interested parties in government, industry, academia, animal protection, and other communities. It also seeks to span the divide between relevant policy and science issues.

We welcome suggestions for how to improve AltTox. Let us know how we can serve you better.

Martin Stephens
George Daston

1 National Academies Press
2 The Official Journal of the European Union
4 European Partnership for Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing
5 National Toxicology Program
6 6th World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences
7 Balls, M. (2006). Animal experimentation: Should the Three Rs be abandoned? Altern. La. Anim. 32, 139-141.
8 Quoted in Balls, M. (2005). The Three Rs: Looking back … and forward. ALTEX 22, Special Issue, 26-29.
9 Altweb