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The Great Scientific Story of 2007 That You Never Heard About

By Jeremy Rifkin

Would you be surprised to learn that one of the most prestigious scientific bodies in the world, the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, reported earlier this year on a new breakthrough in science comparable to “the discovery of penicillin, the elucidation of the DNA double helix, and the development of computers”.  Do I have your attention?

And what if that report said that the new scientific breakthrough would save millions of lives and alleviate the suffering of millions of others, and still, you hadn’t heard about it.  The fact is, this story received only scant attention in the media.

The bombshell study, entitled “Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century:  A Vision and a Strategy” was published in June 2007.  You need to know about it.

In an era where increasing exposure to massive volumes of industrial chemicals in the environment is jeopardizing the lives of millions of human beings around the world, the National Research Council’s report opens up a new door to protecting your health.

Revolutionary new developments are occurring in “toxicity testing”, the analysis of how thousands of commercial chemicals impact human health.  According to the study, “advances in [the new fields] of toxicogenomics, bioinformatics, systems biology, epigenetics, and computational toxicology could transform toxicity testing from a system based on whole animal testing to one founded primarily on in-vitro methods that evaluate changes in biologic processes using cells, cell lines, or cellular components, preferably of human origin”.

Some companies are already growing sections of human tissue in test tubes- cells from skin, eyes, air passageways, the mouth, cervix, the immune system- and subjecting them to chemical toxicity tests.  Other companies are using sophisticated computer simulation programs- virtual testing- to assess the potential danger that chemicals might have on human health.  Last year, alone, companies spent more than $700 million on these alternative testing procedures.

The benefits, say the scientists, are two-fold.  The laboratories can begin to phase out questionable toxicity testing on millions of animals, and, at the same time, develop far more rigorous and accurate assessments of the risks and danger chemicals pose to human health by the use of state of the art biotechnologies and computational technologies and methodologies.

Scientists have become increasingly vocal in recent years about the dubious value of injecting research animals with high doses of chemical agents as a way of determining risks to human populations, who, in the normal course of life, are exposed to far lower concentrations of the same chemicals.

Even more troubling, says the National Research Council report, is that the “current tests also provide little information on modes and mechanisms of action, which are critical for understanding interspecies differences in toxicity, and little or no information for assessing variability in human susceptibility”.  In other words, millions of animals each year are subject to senseless suffering and put to death, despite the fact that the tests provide very little valuable information for assessing the risks of the chemicals to human beings.

Anti-vivisection societies and animal rights organizations have been making this argument for a long time, only to be scorned by scientific bodies, medical associations, and industry lobbies who accuse them of being anti-progress and caring more about animals than people.  Now, it is the scientific establishment that has come to the very same conclusions.  Toxicity testing in animals is bad science.

The authors of the National Academy of Sciences study also point out that animal testing is expensive, time consuming, and uses large numbers of animals.  As a result, only a small proportion of chemicals are ever evaluated.

So, why continue a practice that is so costly and ineffective, and results in so much suffering and death?  For starters, let’s not forget that there is a large industry out there engaged in the lucrative business of toxicity testing on animals which is reluctant to give up the practice.  Their fallback position in recent years is that animal toxicity testing is all we’ve got and, therefore, better than doing no toxicity testing at all.

The new report puts this conventional argument to rest.  New cutting-edge technologies offer the possibility of securing accurate data, for the first time, on chemical risk exposure, without the need of continuing the barbaric testing of chemicals on our fellow creatures.  Indeed, the architect of the report says that “over time, the need for animal testing should be greatly reduced and possibly even eliminated”.  Good news for our fellow creatures.

With consumers around the world becoming increasingly troubled about animal toxicity testing, dozens of start up companies with names like Affymetrix, Agilent Technologies, Applied Biosystems, Gene Logic, and CuraGen, are entering the field with the new high-tech testing methods.

While the new methodologies for toxicity testing will spare the lives of millions of animals, they also hold the promise of saving the lives of millions of human beings. Quicker and cheaper testing procedures and more accurate data will speed the assessment of the risks of various chemicals and provide the means of creating new drugs and other interventions to secure human health.  In short, a win-win for both our fellow creatures and our own species.

The issuing of this landmark report is particularly timely in light of the passage this year of the REACH legislation in the European Union, which will require European companies to test more than 30,000 chemicals already in the environment for risks to human health.  The U.S. and other nations around the world are closely watching the trailblazing effort in the EU to ratchet up the regulatory process for monitoring and testing chemicals for toxicity.

This makes it all the more imperative that the EU begin the process of toxicity testing by taking advantage of the new technologies at the outset of the new testing regime.  If this doesn’t happen, it is estimated that nearly 4 million animals will be subjected to toxicity testing and suffer excruciating pain and death in the REACH program.  It would be unconscionable for REACH to rely on ineffectual and draconian animal toxicity testing that the National Academy of Sciences report says is questionable in its results, costly, inefficient, and not up to the task.

If the REACH program is going to be a model for the rest of the world, than it needs to aggressively phase in the new toxicity testing technologies or risk creating a costly and ineffective regulatory program that will have little if any beneficial impact and only further retard the process of managing exposure to commercial chemical risks.  It is a matter of life or death.

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Biotech Century (Tarcher/Penguin).

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