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Scientists Committed to Revolutionize Chemical Safety Testing met in Brussels

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By Jeanne Laperrouze, Altertox

Leading scientists from Europe and North America convened in Brussels in June to chart a future for chemical safety testing that prioritizes ethics, accuracy, and efficiency. The mission: to advance scientific test methods that can enhance protection for human health and the environment from toxic substances.

At the forefront of this initiative is PrecisionTox, a revolutionary project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program. Launched in 2021, PrecisionTox employs cutting-edge advancements in genomics, data science, toxicology, and other fields to develop New Approach Methods (NAMs) to assess chemical risks without resorting totesting on vertebrate animals.

PrecisionTox’s approach is rooted in evolutionary toxicology, which posits that animals share similar responses to chemicals due to their common evolutionary history. This concept leverages alternative metabolic model organisms, such as fruit flies and early-stage zebrafish, to predict chemical effects.

Over the last decade, significant progress has been made in the development of NAMs. These methods, that replace traditional animal testing, include: In vitro (tests on cells), In silico (computer simulations), In chemico (chemical-based tests) and tests on alternative organisms (biomedical model species like fruit flies or Daphnia which are also well-known and long-used by scientists as sentinels to monitor environmental health and pollution). 

These innovative methods promise to align with societal ethical standards, while offering improved accuracy, lower costs, and faster results. “When it comes to human health, chemical pollution is the first concern on this planet, being responsible for three times more premature deaths than malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS combined,” explains John Colbourne, coordinator of the project. “Transitioning to precision toxicology is more than an animal welfare concern; it is a race to identify and remove harmful chemicals from the environment.” PrecisionTox partners all share the view that evolutionary toxicology is the way forward to accelerating chemical safety assessment and are eager to demonstrate the validity of this approach.

However, despite their clear benefits, the widespread adoption of NAMs still faces several challenges. There are ongoingconcerns about the reliability and predictive accuracy of these new methods. Existing regulatory frameworks are often slow to adapt to new testing methodologies, maintaining a strong reliance on traditional animal-based tests despite their flaws. Additionally, resistance to change, a lack of trust among stakeholders due to legal uncertainties, and insufficient education and training in new methods hinder progress. A 2023 PrecisionTox report, based on interviews with stakeholders including industry representatives, regulators, and policymakers, highlights these barriers.

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However on the policy side, the regulatory landscape has seen progress in the last decade, starting with the EU’s adoption of the Cosmetics Regulation in 2013, which bans the sale of cosmetics tested on animals. This regulatory shift has been followed by 17 other countries, setting a precedent for broader acceptance of NAMs in other sectors and regions. In 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for an EU action plan to end the use of animals in research, testing and education. The European Commission is currently developing a roadmap for phasing out animal testing in chemical safety assessments, responding to the European Citizens’ Initiative “Save Cruelty-Free Cosmetics – Commit to a Europe Without Animal Testing” in 2023. Additional regulatory changes are anticipated with the forthcoming REACH review and the revision of the Cosmetics Product Regulation, promising to keep the newly elected Members of the European Parliament busy in the coming years.

This legislative agenda is an opportunity to overcome theremaining challenges to the uptake of these novel methods. Aconcerted effort is needed to enhance scientific readiness,address institutional hurdles and ensure legal certainties to NAMs use. Increased collaboration, comprehensive education, and flexible regulatory frameworks are essential for integrating NAMs into chemical safety testing effectively. These efforts are crucial for the future European Commission to safeguard the implementation of the Green Deal, particularly the EU’s Chemical Strategy for Sustainability, provided that the European Commission and Parliament priorities do not change.

The University of Birmingham, along with 14 other partners from Europe and North America, leads the PrecisionTox initiative. Together with two other EU-funded projects, ONTOX and RISK-HUNT3R, these consortia represent a €60 million investment to advance next-generation risk assessment. They have joined forces under the ASPIS cluster to exchange data and solutions with EU regulators to move away from traditional animal testing.

This collaboration represents a pivotal step toward safer, more ethical, and more accurate chemical safety assessments, marking a significant milestone in scientific and regulatory progress. As these innovative methods gain traction, they promise to transform chemical safety testing, protect human health, and preserve the environment while aligning with evolving societal values.

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