Brian Berridge, Associate Director of the National Toxicology Program (NTP), details how NTP studies the health impacts of chemicals and other factors in this fascinating interview
The National Toxicology Program (NTP) was established in 1978 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (although it was called the Department of Health, Education and Welfare at that time) due to a growing concern about the effects of various substances in the environment which could directly or indirectly contribute to diseases and illness. In short, their goal today is to supply information on harmful substances, prevent disease and disability due to exposure and to improve the health of the general population in the United States (U.S.).
To find out more about NTP’s excellent work in the U.S., we were fortunate to speak with Brian Berridge, Associate Director of the National Toxicology Program who provides compelling insights into the organisation’s work. He details the first goal of the NTP as identifying potential hazards associated with chemicals and nonchemical agents that the general population might be exposed to. This includes industrial chemicals, consumer goods, food additives, pharmaceuticals, radiofrequency radiation, infectious agents and a full range of possible agents. Brian then draws our attention to NTP’s second goal, which is to develop and validate novel methods used to study and characterise these potential hazards.
The conversation then moves to how the NTP’s work in the U.S. addresses the human health effects of chemical agents in the environment. Brian underlines that they largely try to understand the biological activity of the agents they study, some of which are nominated by regulatory agencies and policymakers because they are interested in understanding the potential health effects of environmental exposures. Brian explains this point further in his own words.
“Some of those nominations come from regulators, policymakers or the general public and some are generated from within the NTP. Largely, we use a variety of test methods such as in vitro culture systems, in silico computational methods and animal studies to try and get a sense of biological activity in terms of hazards associated with these kinds of agents.”
“All of the data NTP generates is captured in a variety of forms and it is all made public on our website and databases. We also produce formal reports, publish peer review manuscripts in scientific journals and give many presentations at scientific meetings.”
“The bottom line here is that we take on the things that folks are concerned about and we study them in a variety of ways, with testing and modelling systems, so we can then report that out for consumption by policymakers, regulators, the general public and the scientific community.”
We now turn our thoughts on why the NTP was set up in the U.S. in 1978 and consider something of its journey from then to the present day. Brian believes the original intent was to create a focus within the U.S. government to take on a responsibility for carrying out some of this testing and also to coordinate amongst other agencies who were doing a similar type of work. Brian adds that a fundamental interest of the public is cancer risks, an activity that had largely taken place in the National Cancer Institute. After the NTP was established in the late 1970s, it was given some responsibility for taking that on, Brian notes.
“Over the years, our interests and efforts have become broader, so NTP took on and developed methods for evaluating immune system toxicity, as well as developmental and reproductive effects. As time has gone on, scientists have realised that not everybody is equally prone to these effects. Individual susceptibility has, therefore, become a much more important part of our work.
“In terms of the methods being developed at NTP, as time has gone by the range of agents has become broader. We don’t just look at chemicals anymore, but we also look at pharmaceuticals and non-traditional agents such as radio frequency radiation associated with cell phones as well as exposure to lighting conditions for those in shift work. These are agents beyond traditional chemicals that potentially have public health effects.”
Finally, we ask Brian if there any specific research initiatives that he would like to highlight as an example of NTP’s work in the U.S. He draws our attention to the traditional testing of chemicals of public health concern for which there has been long-term exposure. He then details NTP’s work around more short-term concerns, such as a chemical spill in the Elk River, West Virginia back in 2014 where a more rapid response was required and ultimately delivered.
“This population was exposed to very high concentrations of an industrial chemical which got into the water supply, so you can imagine that caused a fair bit of concern. NTP got its resources and capabilities together pretty quickly and carried out a number of studies over a short period of time to generate information that would help the folks there to understand what the potential hazards were.
“The other part of our business is about developing and validating novel methods and as such, we are the host for the NTP’s Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods (NICEATM). Essentially, their role is to facilitate the adoption of novel methods that do not use animals.
“We also contribute to a programme called Toxicology in the 21st Century (Tox21) which has been running since 2008. The aim of this initiative is to develop high-throughput methods to rapidly test whether substances in our environment adversely affect human health. The number of things that are being put into the environment, such as the products we consume or industrial chemicals has far outpaced our ability to test them in traditional ways. We had to develop highthroughput methods to understand things that we really need to focus on that represent a true risk versus those that are less of a problem.
“One last thought is that NTP, as is the case with a lot of scientific efforts, tries to keep pace with both the needs and the opportunities. Accordingly, we’re constantly assessing novel approaches, assessing our portfolio for public health relevance and adjusting to changing expectations.”
The National Toxicology Program (NTP)