The use of experimental animals in reproductive toxicity testing is critically reviewed on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Three Rs concept by Russell and Burch, since there is major concern that reproductive toxicity testing will significantly increase due to the requirements of the EU Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) system. A comparison of the test guidelines for drugs, agrochemicals and industrial chemicals shows that, for historical reasons, significantly different testing strategies are applied. The current status of development and validation of in vitro tests in reproductive toxicology is also critically evaluated. The mouse embryonic stem cell test (mEST) is the most advanced and promising of the in vitro tests. Although it has not yet been accepted for regulatory purposes, its use in preclinical drug development is well established. Moreover, promising molecular endpoints have been established in the mEST, including proteomic and toxicogenomic endpoints. Preliminary results have been obtained with a human EST (hEST). In addition, an overview is given on new in vitro reproductive toxicity tests that are currently being developed in the EU FP6 project, ReProTect, since the ReProTect test battery, which covers the essential steps of female and male fertility, implantation and embryotoxicity, holds promise for use as a screening assay for reproductive toxicity testing according to the EU REACH legislation. However, since validated in vitro methods will not be available in the short term, opportunities for the refinement of the standard in vivo tests are discussed, in order to reduce the numbers of animal used in reproductive toxicity testing. Finally, recommendations for toxicity testing in the 21st century call for the harmonisation of test methods across all areas of regulatory testing as a first step. Since the REACH system testing framework for industrial chemicals is driven by the reproductive safety testing requirements of agrochemicals, a shift is proposed to exposure-driven testing of industrial chemicals. In particular, the implementation of a new ‘extended one-generation reproductive toxicity study’ (EOGRTS), which includes triggers for additional testing for fertility, developmental neurotoxicity and immunotoxicity, would significantly reduce test animal numbers. It is concluded that in vitro methods hold great promise for reproductive toxicity testing in the 21st century, e.g. the ReProTect in vitro battery and the embryonic stem cell (ESC) technology focusing on molecular endpoints in both the mEST and the hEST.
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