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NTP Retreat Considers Program's Directions

By Eddy Ball
December 2006

general scientific collage

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) held its two-day retreat at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center October 19-20. With some seventy scientists in attendance, the retreat offered the program an opportunity to evaluate its major initiatives, its roadmap and its vision in light of a flat budget and changing conditions. One purpose of the retreat was to gather as many staff together as possible and get them to talk about some of the major issues facing NTP. The retreat gave participants a chance to ask, "Where are we?" and "Where are we going?"

According to the organizing chair for the event, Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction Deputy Director Paul Foster, Ph.D., "This was a time for the members of the NTP to internalize all the information we've gotten from a series of workshops held over the past 18 months" and decide where the program needs to go in the future. Attendees heard reports on the pathology peer review process and the host susceptibility initiative that will evaluate known toxicants in multiple mouse species to tease out potential differences in genetic susceptibility. The group also considered developments in the process of selecting stocks and strains of test animals, how to utilize high throughput screening, how to evaluate tumors that occur as a result of endocrine system changes, and which new biomarkers will be most appropriate for future inclusion in future testing activities. Foster reported that the group made progress in several areas.

Foster pointed to an important consensus that emerged from the meeting. "NTP is planning to move toward more routine use of perinatal dosing. That means we'll expose animals beginning in utero in our cancer studies." This new emphasis on in utero exposure will establish the beginning point for NTP studies unless investigators can present good reasons for not performing perinatal exposures. The move answers the concerns of many researchers that perinatal exposure for many cancers, for example, may be critical in disease development.

One concern that ran throughout the discussions was process and how to make the program more effective and efficient as it moves into the 21st century. The pathology peer review process, for example, can be unusually time consuming. Other processes, such as nominations of chemicals for testing, have bottlenecks. "Bear in mind that when NTP does its carcinogen bioassays, they are recognized as the gold standard everywhere in the world, and so we don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water," Foster explained. On the other hand, Foster argued that there are places where NTP can compress the nomination-to-report process significantly.

As NTP approaches its thirtieth anniversary in 2008, members also wonder about identity and place. Interim Associate Director Allen Dearry stated that the retreat was not only a good start at addressing NTP's character and redefining its goals, but was also an excellent step forward in implementing many of the ideas and recommendations emerging from the past years' workshops. "It was especially pleasing and gratifying to see so much interest and enthusiasm in moving to make the NTP Roadmap a reality and in initiating a number of new directions," Dearry noted following the retreat.

As NTP considers its place in the larger NIH and DHHS scientific community, its members continue to work to safeguard public health from hazardous chemicals in food and the environment. With more than 80,000 chemicals registered for use in the U.S. and an estimated 2,000 more added each year, the program has its work cut out for it. The NTP retreat and the work to follow in its wake will help this important player in public health fulfill its mission to expand the scientific basis for making public health decisions on the potential toxicity of environmental agents.

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