Push for animal-free chemical safety tests

(Clockwise from bottom left) Dr Ran Su, Dr Lit-Hsin Loo, Dr Daniele Zink and Dr Sijing Xiong, from A*Star's Bioinformatics Institute and Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, developed the first high-throughput imaging platform for predicti
(Clockwise from bottom left) Dr Ran Su, Dr Lit-Hsin Loo, Dr Daniele Zink and Dr Sijing Xiong, from A*Star's Bioinformatics Institute and Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, developed the first high-throughput imaging platform for predicting kidney toxicity. PHOTO: INSTITUTE OF BIOENGINEERING AND NANOTECHNOLOGY

Singapore scientists will redouble efforts to develop animal- free methods for testing the safety of chemicals in new drugs and consumer products following a new research partnership between Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research and the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States. Lin Yangchen looks at the potential of such work.

People are exposed to a stew of artificial chemicals every day, whether in cosmetics, cleaning products, food flavourings or medicines.

What's alarming is that no one knows for sure whether all of them are safe for use.

To address this global risk, Singapore and the United States have teamed up to develop new approaches for identifying chemicals that could pose a risk to human health.

The significance of the partnership between Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced last month, lies in the decision to stop the practice of animal-testing.

Traditionally, chemical safety tests have involved the use of animals. But there is growing scientific consensus that animal testing - besides being costly and time-consuming - does not always provide a good model for predicting toxicity to humans.

Many also consider the practice to be cruel.

This has led to a global push for more accurate and efficient non- animal testing methods to ensure continued human health and safety from the more than 100,000 - and increasing - chemicals used by consumers and industry.

Said Dr Kenneth Lee, senior director of A*Star's Biomedical Research Council: "If we can identify reliably and efficiently specific chemicals that pose a risk to human health, it should enable industry to predict the safety of their products in development, and ultimately benefit consumers and society."

Dr Russell Thomas, director of the EPA National Centre for Computational Toxicology, said: "We are excited to combine our computational and toxicological expertise with the world-class biomedical research capabilities of A*Star."

A*Star said the partnership is also part of its strategic move to advance its capabilities in safety sciences, with the aim of becoming the industry partner of choice in Asia.

Their joint projects will combine cutting-edge biomedical and computational tools, such as stem cell culture and machine learning, to predict the effects of chemicals on the kidney, liver and critical prenatal development of blood vessels.

The non-animal test methods were cheered by animal rights groups.

Said Dr Amy Clippinger of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), an international animal rights organisation: "We are very pleased to see this international collaboration to develop non-animal test methods."

Mr Louis Ng, MP for Nee Soon GRC and executive director of Acres, the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society, said: "Acres has been pushing for this for quite a while.

"This project is a win-win approach that will result in a lot more progress, because it addresses both human and animal welfare concerns."

• Additional reporting by Samantha Boh

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2016, with the headline 'Push for animal-free chemical safety tests'. Print Edition | Subscribe