Testing substances for toxic effects still relies largely on animal experiments, and is an expensive and time-consuming approach that can provide results of limited value for human health. Researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, have now won US$6 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to begin an ambitious project to develop an alternative testing approach.
The team, led by toxicologist Thomas Hartung, aims to develop a way of mapping the molecular pathways of toxicity in cells. Understanding which pathways damage cell function and cause illness could help conclusively identify substances as toxic or non-toxic. Hartung has long argued for a new approach to toxicity testing (read his comment piece in Nature).
“Mapping the entirety of these pathways — which I’ve termed the ‘Human Toxome’ — will be a large-scale effort, perhaps on the order of the Human Genome Project,” Hartung says.
The aim is for toxicologists at large to participate in the project, cooperatively mapping the human toxome. The team will create a public database of the toxicity pathways, giving full access to researchers around the world. As a first step to mapping the human toxome, Hartung and his collaborators will track the pathways of endocrine disruption that disturb the hormonal system and can cause tumours, birth defects and developmental disorders. The physiological pathways of the endocrine system are already relatively well understood.
The human toxome project will be discussed along with other new approaches to toxicity testing at a meeting at the New York Academy of Sciences on 4 October.