Tar Heel: Warren Casey is using science to save lab rats

Warren M. Casey, 53, is director of the National Toxicology Program Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods. Casey is an NIEHS scientist in RTP, one of the leaders in the scientific movement to replace the use of animals in testing with robots and computer models.
Warren M. Casey, 53, is director of the National Toxicology Program Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods. Casey is an NIEHS scientist in RTP, one of the leaders in the scientific movement to replace the use of animals in testing with robots and computer models.

Not so long ago, someone in Warren Casey’s position would have found himself at odds with animal rights advocates who decry the use of animals in testing the safety of products and materials.

Casey directs a center within the federal government, called the Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods, that advises companies and agencies on how to best use rats and other animals to test product safety.

In the three years since taking over as director, however, Casey has emerged as an international leader in the charge to eliminate the use of animals in testing for the safety of products and materials.

It’s a quest made possible by scientific advances that are expected to be more accurate in predicting how dangerous chemicals are without the use of animals. Among the new methods is the promise of “human on a chip,” which allows scientists to replicate human tissues on microchips for testing.

Earlier this year, Casey was awarded the Enhancement of Animal Welfare Award from the Society of Toxicology for his work.

Thomas Hartung, director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins University, says Casey is “steering the delicate change of methods toward animal welfare, without compromising the safety of patients and consumers.”

“Opening this process up to the technologies of the new century is a major achievement in this direction,” says Hartung, who nominated Casey for the award.

Casey has worked to garner support for alternative methods of testing in the scientific community, and is working with regulators to help make it easier to use these methods. He speaks internationally on the topic, and has helped coordinate programs to support the new methods by creating better data and encouraging small businesses to invest in new testing methods.

“It’s something I can get enthusiastic about because it’s really a better way of doing things,” he says.

Sparking the imagination

Casey grew up in Raleigh near North Hills, back before Shelley Road was paved. He graduated from Sanderson High School, and followed in his father’s footsteps to join the National Guard, which helped him pay for college.

Having spent his whole life in North Carolina, his experience in Saudi Arabia and other locales during the Gulf War was eye opening. He started college at Appalachian State and finished at N.C. State University, where he earned a bachelor’s in microbiology.

He was earning his Ph.D. in microbiology when he started working with computer models to predict the toxic levels of various substances. He helped form a group of researchers who were interested in using such modeling.

Members of the group would also use animal tissues to test their work, so Casey does have experience with animal testing. Back then, he says, attempts to create tissues for testing had not been successful. But those methods have since progressed.

“It’s evolved to the point where it’s reproducible and scalable,” he says. “We just have to figure how to scale it up so everyone can use it.”

He worked at GlaxoSmithKline for 15 years, where he specialized in computer modeling to predict toxicity. He later struck out on his own, creating a business that helped predict how cancer treatments would affect particular patients.

But the economy was spiraling downward, and when the job came open with the alternative toxicological unit of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Casey decided to take it. He started as a deputy director in 2010, and took over as acting director in 2013.

Since he took over as director, he has moved the focus of his group almost entirely on replacing animal tests with other methods, reducing efforts to refine existing tests to be less harmful. He oversees three full-time workers and 15 contractors, and collaborates with dozens of other federal agencies, animal welfare groups, industry trade groups and others.

Some of these methods are getting public attention, he says, in part because ideas like “human on a chip” spark the imagination. His group uses screening robots that can test 10,000 chemicals a day.

“That’s the sizzle on the steak,” he says.

But much of their efforts are more mundane, such as mathematical models that can predict whether a substance will be harmful to humans. Another focus is data quality, creating reliable reference data for chemicals so that they can accurately evaluate how well alternative methods work.

National conversation needed

Casey says the move to ban animal testing in Europe was driven by concerns about animal welfare. The current effort in this country is driven by concerns about public health and economics.

While technologies such as computer modeling or creating human tissues on microchips have been in development for years, the methods only recently have become established enough to be used reliably.

He predicts that within two years there will be a dramatic reduction in the number of animals used for tests. A standard test to see whether a single chemical causes cancer, for instance, takes five to eight years, costs millions of dollars, and uses several hundred rats.

“There’s a realization that we cannot test all of the chemicals we need to test with animals,” he says.

One paradoxical challenge is that because so many tests to date rely on animals such as rats, new tests that should be more accurate can’t be compared to previous tests. Add to that the fact that federal regulations often require data based on animal tests, and serious roadblocks appear.

Changing these policies would require an overhaul of rules among several government agencies. He and other advocates, including representatives of animal rights groups, are pushing the federal government to overhaul its regulations to make it easier to use alternatives to animal testing.

“It’s an interlocked, complex puzzle that has to be dealt with at a very high level,” he says. “As much as agencies have tried to do things on their own, to really have an impact, we’re going to have to have a national conversation on how to get away from animal testing.”

The “road map” would have to be approved by the National Academies of Science and, eventually, the office of the president.

Support for the idea seems to be growing. Even the director of the National Institutes of Health recently said that he expects to largely end the use of animals in testing drugs and other chemicals within a decade.

“It’s a rallying point to have someone in that position saying that,” Casey says.

Like any new idea, the new testing methods meet resistance from institutions that have relied on the use of animals for decades. Funding and grants are set up to support animal testing.

“Science isn’t the challenge anymore,” he says. “It’s not that we don’t have the science to go where we need to go. It’s everything else – policies, trade agreements, institutional resistance.”

But if there is dissent in the scientific community, Casey has found a new ally in animal rights groups such as PETA. In his three years as director, his group’s relationship with animal advocates has radically changed.

“They have traditionally not been big fans of this office,” he says. “Now they see that the science is what’s going to help them.”

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Warren M. Casey

Born: April 1963, Raleigh

Residence: Knightdale

Career: Director, Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods, U.S. National Toxicology Program, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Awards: Enhancement of Animal Welfare Award, Society of Toxicology, 2016; Distinguished Alumni, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, N.C. State University, 2003

Education: B.S. biochemistry and Ph.D. microbiology, N.C. State

Family: Wife, Alison; children, Ashleigh and Evan