Friday, February 17, 2012

ECBC Chief Scientist Discusses Toxicology in the 21st Century

Harry Salem, Ph.D., ECBC's chief scientist for life sciences, stands with Rear Admiral William Stokes, Assistant Surgeon General, outside the Convention Center in Washington, D.C., after receiving his honorary coin.

Harry Salem, Ph.D., has been on the cutting edge of toxicology studies for more than 50 years. His career began in academia and transitioned to the pharmaceutical industry and directing contract labs before he came to ECBC in November 1984 as the chief of the toxicology division. Currently, as the chief scientist for the life sciences at ECBC, Salem oversees numerous toxicity testing programs and is working in the area of stem cell research, which is a key element of his long-standing goal of combating diseases while finding alternatives to animal testing.

In recognition of his commitment to finding alternatives to animal testing, Salem was awarded an honorary coin from the U.S. Public Health Service at the March 2011 Annual Meeting of the Society of Toxicology.

“For toxicity testing to advance, we need to be able to develop high-throughput screening methods,” said Salem. “Currently, there is a backlog of more than 50,000 chemicals that have not been tested, and testing on animals is a low-throughput, high-cost and time-consuming method of testing.”

In an effort to more effectively and efficiently study potential toxicity of chemical agents in humans, life scientists working under Salem at ECBC have been experimenting with stem cells, which have already yielded some promising results.

“The most exciting work we’re doing right now at ECBC is our work with stem cells in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University,” said Salem. “All organs and tissues have stem cells, which are programmed to repair certain parts of the body. Stem cells can be formed into lung cells and even nerve cells, and that’s just the periphery of the potential application of using stem cells. Eventually, we want to be able to mobilize stem cells to repair the body without having to inject them into humans.”

Salem said that the most significant challenge facing ECBC right now is procuring adequate funding to pursue major programs.

“Stem cells are a relatively new field of research,” Salem said. “There many potential applications of the research, and until we try them, we won’t really know how we can use them. For example, stem cells can be used to regenerate tissue, but if they are overstimulated, they can develop into tumors. Controlling the growth and activity of stem cells is just one of many factors that we need to be able to study. Our ultimate goal is to be able to ‘build a human on a chip,’ but even the most sophisticated model is a poor imitation of the real thing. Even on a chip, we don’t get to see the interaction of the body’s systems. We’re trying to make models that are as close as we can get to actual human beings so that we can limit animal testing.”

In addition to his work for ECBC, Salem has been one of the official representatives to the Interagency Coordinating Committee for the Validation of Alternative Methods, a visiting professor of chemical toxicology at Rutgers University, the author of 13 books and the director of ECBC’s National Research Council Research Associateship Program.

“ECBC is a great place with great opportunities for working with bright young people,” said Salem. “We have a lot of good people who do good work here.”

For more information about the National Research Council’s efforts to improve toxicity testing, visit

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