A little more than a decade ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was able to evaluate only a small number of the 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States to determine whether they posed a threat to human health and the environment.
That changed dramatically after long-time EPA scientist Robert Kavlock was assigned the task of addressing this difficult problem. In 2005, Kavlock established the National Center for Computational Toxicology and shaped it as a major biotech enterprise that now uses cutting-edge science and technology to quickly screen large numbers of industrial and household chemicals for hazardous effects.
Collectively known as ToxCast, the center’s new tools integrate advances in biology, biotechnology, chemistry and computer science, and reduce the need for laboratory animal-based toxicity tests. The new process exposes living cells or isolated proteins to chemicals, and screens them for changes in biological activity that may suggest potential toxic effects. The traditional process exposes animals to high doses of a chemical to see if they develop tumors or nervous system problems, or if their offspring have birth defects.
Using the animal testing methods, EPA has evaluated only about 70 chemicals for hormonal activity during the past 15 years, at a cost of approximately $1 million per chemical. The ToxCast system, in contrast, screened more than 2,000 chemicals between 2009 and 2013, at a cost of approximately $30,000 per chemical and, as of 2015, had compiled screening data on nearly 10,000 chemicals. The tests have provided data on the potential of these chemicals to cause adverse health effects.
“Bob Kavlock has been a leader in transforming the way we assess the risk of chemical substances that are present in the human environment,” said Daniel Krewski, a professor at the University of Ottawa and an expert on chemical safety and environmental hazards. “With this new approach based on the computational methods that Bob’s group has pioneered, we now for the first time have the prospect of being able to evaluate every chemical that may pose a risk. This is a huge advance.”
Paul Anastas, director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale University, described Kavlock as “perhaps the best scientist in the federal government today.”
“He has built something in the Computational Toxicology Center that is tremendously powerful and rigorous. He has taken environmental protection to the next level,” said Anastas.
Lek Kadeli, the acting EPA assistant administrator for research and development, said Kavlock’s work starting the center and developing the new risk assessment process for chemicals has been “transformative.”
“People were not expecting EPA to accomplish this for another 20 years. There is a sense of astonishment from people who are experts in the field over what the EPA has done,” said Kadeli.
Kadeli pointed out that Kavlock, a veteran scientist at the EPA for more than three decades, forged partnerships with the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and industry, and opened the doors for collaboration and data exchange across the public and private sectors. He said this has permitted an unobstructed flow of knowledge, discovery and information across organizations.
“Any scientist, when they do work, likes to hold onto the information and only make it available as they publish so they can get the recognition,” said Kadeli. “As soon as we have good information, we’re going to make it public and that helps others build on our work and speed the process of this incredible research. This was driven by Bob and the culture he created.”
EPA now has more than 150 research agreements with a wide range of partners, including L’OREAL, Dow Chemical, Health Canada, the European Chemicals Agency, Harvard University, the California Environmental Protection Agency, and pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Merck.
In 2012, after seven years at the helm, Kavlock gave up day-to-day leadership of the toxicology center and was named the deputy assistant administrator for science in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. In this role, he leads research teams and is shaping the agency’s science agenda and leading research teams. Kavlock also is working with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development to harmonize guidelines so that member countries test and regulate chemicals in the same way.
Kavlock said it was highly rewarding to “start with an idea that many people thought would never be successful and create an organization that is now recognized around the world as a leading innovator in toxicology and risk assessment.”
“We have positioned the EPA to do a much better job of looking at the safety of large numbers of chemicals,” said Kavlock.