NCATS Spotlight: Toxicology in the 21st Century (Tox21) Program

DNA in a double helix

We are exposed to thousands of different chemicals during our lifetimes, from consumer products to food additives to pharmaceutical drugs. Yet scientists lack the data to predict how these chemicals affect our bodies and their potential for harm. New system-wide methods for assessing chemical toxicity can improve the way scientists evaluate environmental chemicals and develop new medicines.

The Tox21 program, a collaborative initiative among NIH, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency, aims to test 10,000 chemicals and evaluate their potential to cause health problems. The compounds undergo testing in the high-throughput robotic screening system at the NCATS Division of Preclinical Innovation. Program scientists design innovative methods to quickly and efficiently predict whether certain chemicals can disrupt processes in the human body, leading to adverse health effects.

In July, partners on this project published an article in Environmental Health Perspectives that outlined progress made thus far, the methods and technologies used, potential problems, and possible solutions to those problems. Leaders from each of the Tox21 agencies, including NCATS Director Christopher P. Austin, M.D., described the project’s substantial progress in integrating data from diverse technologies and establishing end points that will contribute to a systems-biology approach to toxicology. The authors say that although Tox21 will likely take decades to fully achieve its goals, they believe the information acquired thus far is “foretelling the future of toxicology.”

A month earlier, these same collaborators highlighted Tox21’s chemical screening progress in an article published online in Drug Discovery Today. In the paper, they described the robotic platform, which can screen the Tox21 library three times in a week. They also described the production phase of the screening process, compound library preparation, data processing and the methods used to prepare the robotic platform for full-scale screening.

Tox21 work also is contributing to the NIEHS-NCATS-UNC DREAM Toxicogenetics Challenge. Launched earlier this summer, this innovative, crowdsourced computational contest aims to gain a greater understanding of how our individual genetics influence the toxic response of cells to chemical exposure. The data for the challenge come from a Tox21 study that used information from the 1000 Genomes Project. Leaders and organizers include scientists from NCATS, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Sage Bionetworks, Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessments and Methods (DREAM), and the University of North Carolina (UNC).


Posted September 2013