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Researchers Develop Innovative Approach to Screening Chemicals

If implemented, the researchers say their system could save companies millions of dollars a year and speed up approval time for new drugs and chemicals.

The method federal regulators use to screen new chemicals for toxins has an abysmal track record. According to researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the tests get it wrong half the time.

But the team says it has devised a new way that could boost accuracy to 85 percent. If implemented, the researchers say their system could save companies millions of dollars a year and speed up approval time for new drugs and chemicals.

Currently agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency screen new chemicals’ molecular structure and hunt for toxic red flags. If any group of atoms looks like it could be toxic, the chemical is sent back for more testing.

"A lot of chemicals are incorrectly identified as potentially toxic even though in the end they are not toxic and that could have been predicted," Alex Tropsha, a professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, said in a news release. "Companies are forced to run a lot of unnecessary and costly experiments… and there are products that never see the light of day because they are flagged as toxic when they are not."

To improve the process, the team is proposing that along with the use of the current tests to find potential toxins, researchers use of a computer model designed to give data on how accurate the alert is. The UNC scientists say it will help weed out false alarms.

The UNC group says their system will be available for free via web-based computer software.

"We want to alarm regulators that structural alerts over-predict toxicity while missing truly toxic substances, and offer them much more accurate tools to support regulatory decisions," Tropsha said.
 

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