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NTP Outlines Challenges and Directions at Meeting of Scientific Counselors

By Thaddeus Schug
January 2010

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. and Ken Portier, Ph.D.
At the end of her report, Birnbaum, left, presented certificates of appreciation to several Board members, including Chair Ken Portier, Ph.D., right. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Barbara Shane, Ph.D. and Raymond Novak, Ph.D.
NTP Executive Secretary Barbara Shane, Ph.D., right, listened as Bucher announced her plans to retire after more than six years of service to the program. Seated beside her was Board member Raymond Novak, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Bucher acknowledged that "NTP is more and more in the public eye" because of its testing of compounds widely used in consumer products. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Mary Wolfe, Ph.D.
Deputy Program Director for Policy Mary Wolfe, Ph.D., outlined proposed changes in the CERHR nomination process intended to improve the scientific rigor of review and expand public participation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Ruthann Rudel
Board member Ruthann Rudel expressed her enthusiastic support for Thayer's proposal, describing it as "proactive," "synthesizing," and "high-impact." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John (Jef) French, Ph.D.
Seated at the Board table following his presentation, French fielded questions about his branch's efforts using multiple strains of mice to help define variable ranges of response and better extrapolate across species by identifying the parameters of a chemical's modes of action. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Mike Devito, Ph.D.
NTP study scientist Mike Devito, Ph.D., said one of the rationales for testing the dietary supplement valerian is its widespread use among women of childbearing age. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) is "working to do more in terms of developing toxicology testing across the Federal government," declared NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., as she opened a two-day meeting before the NTP Board of Scientific Counselors (BSC) ( NIEHS at NIEHS December 9-10. Birnbaum's themes of NTP leadership and innovation in toxicity testing in the 21st century through expanded partnerships with other agencies emerged repeatedly in the packed agenda.

In the course of the day and a half meeting, the Board heard presentations on activities by the NTP Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR), concepts for contracts, a review of the Host Susceptibility Program, research concepts for NTP testing nominations, and an overview of NTP studies on herbals and supplements.

Bucher points to interagency collaborations on toxicity testing

NTP Associate Director John Bucher, Ph.D., followed Birnbaum with an update on recent programmatic activity and staff changes within the NTP. He also announced the opening of a shared NTP laboratory to be used by scientists to "better address the toxicological effects occurring in developmental periods that may result in long-term chronic disease later in life."

Nomination proposes state-of-science literature review on obesity/diabetes

Early in the meeting Kristina Thayer, Ph.D., acting director of CERHR,( presented a concept nomination to explore the "state-of-the-science evaluation of environmental exposures and diabetes and obesity." Thayer said that the association between environmental contaminates and diabetes and obesity is an emerging topic of health concern in need of a focused review.

Thayer proposed that CERHR convene a panel of external scientists and hold a workshop to evaluate emerging literature for consistency and relevance and to provide direction for future research. Thayer's presentation sparked a lively debate among Board members on the difficulties of identifying impact issues in an area of health science undergoing such rapid development.

Branch plans new mouse strains to evaluate variability in response

John (Jef) French, Ph.D., acting chief of the NTP Host Susceptibility Branch (HSB) spent a large part of the afternoon session updating the Board on the state of 12 projects in various stages of development within the HSB. French highlighted examples of several genetic variability testing projects with mice strains that the HSB considers "critical to understanding the role of population genetics in the origin and progression of environmental exposure related to toxicity and disease."

Nominations highlight tiered testing protocol

Scott Masten, Ph.D., director of the NTP Office of Nomination and Selection,( kicked off day two of the meeting with the nomination of five chemicals( for Board consideration for extensive NTP testing. NTP Project leaders and Board members reinforced another position expressed earlier by Bucher and Birnbaum - that the NTP should "work to establish a better understanding of risk assessments associated with dosimetry, particularly during critical developmental periods."

The Board and members of the public, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals representative Joseph Manuppello, commented on the importance of conducting in vitro studies prior to animal testing. NTP scientists addressed these concerns by outlining a tiered testing strategy in which NTP first tests chemical toxicity in cell-based assays before moving to animal models.

Dietary supplements become a higher priority for toxicity testing

As part of the program's emphasis on determining toxicity of dietary supplements, three of the five chemicals nominated for future NTP testing were the herbal medicines butterbur, evening primrose, and valerian. NTP Deputy Program Director for Science Nigel Walker. Ph.D., wrapped up the meeting with a presentation on the NTP Dietary Supplements and Herbal Medicines Initiative, placing new and existing nominations into a context of interagency public health collaboration.

Walker noted that dietary supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry of products that often lack uniform strength, purity, and composition - presenting special challenges for toxicity testing. Walker stated that dietary supplement testing will remain a major priority for NTP, which is leading efforts to "increase coordination across federal agencies to ensure NTP obtains the most needed information to inform public health decision making."

(Thaddeus Schug, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Signal Transduction.)

Nigel Walker. Ph.D.
Walker explained that NTP is working closely with other NIH components, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to characterize the safety of herbals and supplements used by as many as 40 percent of adults and 11 percent of children in the United States.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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