Global Partnerships Advance the Regulatory Science That Protects Public Health

By: William Slikker, Jr., Ph.D.

In work, as in life, your success often comes down to the strength of your relationships. And as the director of FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR), among the most pre-eminent regulatory science centers in the world, I have found that this axiom, often so apt in daily life, is also true on a grander scale in the world of research.

William SlikkerNCTR scientists develop innovative tools and strategies to advance FDA’s mission to protect and promote public health. Our center sits on 500 acres in Jefferson, Arkansas, far from agency headquarters in the Washington, D. C., metropolitan area.

But the power of the safety assessment work done at NCTR has global reach, and it is leveraged by the global nature of partnerships we have developed across FDA and with research centers in other countries. Late this summer, Aug. 21-22, I will travel to Montreal for the Global Summit on Regulatory Science, where government, industry and academic scientists from all over the world will assess how to address emerging technologies and implement innovative ways to use them to determine the safety and effectiveness of FDA-regulated products when used in real-world applications.

If you imagine our scientific collaborations as a family tree of sorts, our international activities are one limb. In addition to the annual summit, we provide opportunities for scientists from other countries to work with experienced FDA researchers in all facets of safety assessment. NCTR also has outreach partnerships with the World Health Organization, the European Food Safety Authority and other international organizations such as the International Union of Toxicology (IUTOX).

Our internal partnerships are another limb to the science of public health. Of 200 active research projects ongoing at NCTR, over 100 are done in collaboration with scientists from other FDA centers and the Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA). For example, we work with the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research in assessing the danger, or toxicology, of certain drugs on the most vulnerable populations— pregnant women and children.

We are partners with the ORA in the Nanotechnology Core Facility on our campus that supports the study of nanomaterials, so small that they can’t be seen with a regular light microscope, yet their effects can be profound on the increasing number of drugs, foods and cosmetics in which they are found. NCTR also works with state partners in this research.

In fact, this particular effort and other partnerships have put NCTR at the forefront of research on nanotechnology. The safety and effectiveness of nanotechnology is a focus of a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the FDA Commissioner in 2011 with the State of Arkansas that enables NCTR to collaborate with five major research institutions in the state, including the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Our state partnerships within Arkansas are invaluable as they add both laboratory and investigator expertise not normally available to FDA. In addition to work with nanomaterials, our projects with Arkansas researchers include research on the effects of anesthesia on the developing brains of young animals to emulate the possible effects in children, and the development of novel bioinformatic approaches to collect, analyze and visualize massive pharmacogenomics (the genetic response to drugs) or imaging data sets.

Our federal partners, including the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program (NTP), both of which share our mission to keep you safe from chemical and environmental hazards, combine with NCTR to produce a world powerhouse for safety assessment.

This 20-year partnership between NCTR/FDA and NTP has produced numerous sets of safety data that provide the scientific foundation for FDA regulators and others around the world to establish guidance and set standards to control food contaminants and assess drugs. For example, NCTR’s work on a naturally-occurring fungal contaminant (fumonisin FB1) in the nation’s corn crop produced data for FDA’s Center of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition to provide new recommended limits for fumonisin, an action that reached across the world.

NCTR also engages in public-private partnerships to foster the development of innovative products. For example, we are working with the International Anesthesia Research Society to improve the safe use of anesthetics in children. FDA has many such partnerships to leverage the expertise and resources of industry, government, and non-profit organizations in developing tools that drive innovation.

The crux of regulatory science is this: Just as an art critic must be an expert in art, a scientist at FDA must be an expert in the science that he or she is evaluating. “It takes a village” has become almost a cliché, but in truth it does take a global village to give regulatory scientists the tools they need to ensure that the exciting new technologies will translate into products that are safe, effective and will enhance your life.

William Slikker, Jr., Ph.D., is the Director of FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research

Next Steps on Arsenic and Rice

By: Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., DABT 

On Sept. 6, FDA announced the results of testing 1,300 samples of arsenic in rice and rice products and found that the arsenic levels in rice do not present an immediate or short-term health risk. 

As we said last week, the next step is to assess the potential health risk from long-term exposure to the arsenic in rice and foods made with this grain. 

And that is where my job starts. I am a scientist at FDA and I’d like to explain the scientific legwork that will be done over the next few months by some of the most preeminent arsenic experts in the country. 

This is a daunting task, with one complicating factor being the sheer volume of rice products. When we conducted the risk assessment on arsenic in apple juice that led to the proposed limit, or action level, of 10 parts per billion, we were essentially dealing with one product. With rice, there are different varieties and hundreds of products made with rice. We’ve already started the work. A thorough risk assessment is underway by FDA scientists at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in consultation with colleagues in FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research and in other federal agencies, including the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Scientists and medical experts of all kinds will be working together. I am a toxicologist and will be looking at the data on possible different adverse effects from arsenic exposure in rice. Nutritionists will be studying rice consumption patterns and epidemiologists will be looking for patterns of disease. There will be statisticians, experts on exposure to arsenic, and many others. 

We will use published research on people who have been exposed for years to elevated levels of arsenic in the drinking water. Importantly, we will be looking to see how arsenic may affect the youngest and most vulnerable among us. 

This analysis will take time. As it progresses, the rice industry, university researchers, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are working to identify ways to reduce arsenic levels in rice during production. This is important because we want to minimize exposure to contaminants like arsenic in our foods whenever feasible. 

In the meantime, let me repeat FDA’s advice to eat and to serve your family a balanced diet that contains a variety of grains, including wheat, barley and oats. Consistent with advice long given by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), we recommend that infants and young children eat a variety of grain cereals for good nutrition. According to AAP, there is no medical evidence that rice cereal has any advantage over other cereal grains as a first solid food. 

My colleagues and I are scientists, but we’re also consumers and parents ourselves. It is our responsibility – our mission –  to put forth the best possible science on this issue – to understand and minimize any long-term risk from the presence of arsenic in rice and foods made with rice. 

Dr. Suzanne Fitzpatrick is the Senior Advisor for Toxicology in FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

Thinking Globally to Strengthen Science and Public Health Locally

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

There are many good reasons to go to Arkansas in September. To visit Little Rock, nestled in the rolling hills between the Ouachita Mountains and the Arkansas River, and recently chosen as America’s number one most livable city. To attend the Annual Eureka Springs Antique Automobile Festival or the Ozark Quilt Festival. Or to take in the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock or visit his childhood home in Hope. And yet, none of these were the prime rationale for why more than 100 scientists, researchers, government regulators, and students from around the world came to this state. Instead, these committed individuals traveled from places as far away as Brazil, South Korea, and Australia to attend the Third Annual Global Summit on Regulatory Science hosted this week by FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR). 

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.They were here to help plan and build an organization to ensure that at a time of growing global demands and pressures, we can more efficiently turn the extraordinary potential and promise of science and technology into real-world products and programs that matter and make a difference to the public health.

The concept at the heart of this gathering is an occasionally neglected but fundamental component of the scientific enterprise and of FDA’s work and mission, regulatory science. Regulatory science is critical to speeding innovation, improving regulatory decision-making, and strengthening our ability to better assess the safety, quality and efficacy of a wide range of products, including food, drugs and devices. It is the work of regulatory science that truly enables us to have the knowledge and tools needed to translate scientific discovery and innovation into the products that hold such great promise.

That’s why one focus of the meeting was how to build a training model for regulatory scientists. Because even when individual nations have high standards for scientific training, fully leveraging the opportunities in science today requires an added focus on the specific critical thinking skills necessary to design, implement, and interpret studies within the regulatory context.

A number of programs at FDA for instance, are helping to ensure that scientists – both at the agency and around the globe – have this foundation. For example, NCTR has been collaborating with various Arkansas universities for a number of years to offer research training opportunities through a fellowship program that offers research training to postdoctoral students, as well as a training program for summer interns at the undergraduate level. So far, these programs have helped train students from more than 47 countries, as well as within Arkansas and across the nation.

One program I am especially excited by is the Arkansas Center of Excellence in Regulatory Science (ACERS), a public-private partnership that grew out of a Memorandum of Understanding I signed with the State of Arkansas in 2011. The five research universities that are part of the MOU are working collaboratively to join their vast computing capabilities, bioinformatics training, and other resources, with the equally impressive capabilities of NCTR and FDA to develop a powerful public resource. And just this week, at the Governor’s mansion, I signed the Partnership Intermediary Agreement, which will further strengthen the work of the Center, by facilitating the transfer of NCTR technology to the private sector.

Another important forward-looking aspect of ACERS is the creation of the Program in Regulatory Sciences at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. This curriculum will help provide both current graduate students – and their broader scientific communities — with the critical skills needed to apply their scientific expertise to the decision-making needed for regulatory science within their specialties. These students represent the shape of things to come and provide an important step toward achieving the global promise of scientific innovation.

All of this speaks to the second important principle at the center of this week’s gathering in Arkansas – strengthening opportunities for collaborations being built among scientists from different governments, academia, industry, and elsewhere. Quite simply, collaboration is a cornerstone of regulatory science.

FDA increasingly is required to act in an environment in which food and product safety and development know no global boundaries. To respond effectively we must strengthen collaboration among international partners. This will allow us to offer a unified focus on regulation in the name of science to help ensure the availability and safety of the supply of food, drugs, and other products around the world.

The discussions this week in Arkansas furthered the development of innovative technologies, approaches, and, perhaps most significantly, partnerships that enhance the use and translation of basic science into regulatory applications, as well as new collaborative systems for communication, education and training. These efforts offer extraordinary promise for the future of regulatory science in the global context and for the delivery of the kinds of innovative, safer and more effective products that patients and consumers expect and deserve.

Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., is the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration