Evaluation of the ability of a battery of three in vitro genotoxicity tests to discriminate rodent carcinogens and non-carcinogens I. Sensitivity, specificity and relative predictivity

Mutat Res. 2005 Jul 4;584(1-2):1-256. doi: 10.1016/j.mrgentox.2005.02.004.


The performance of a battery of three of the most commonly used in vitro genotoxicity tests--Ames+mouse lymphoma assay (MLA)+in vitro micronucleus (MN) or chromosomal aberrations (CA) test--has been evaluated for its ability to discriminate rodent carcinogens and non-carcinogens, from a large database of over 700 chemicals compiled from the CPDB ("Gold"), NTP, IARC and other publications. We re-evaluated many (113 MLA and 30 CA) previously published genotoxicity results in order to categorise the performance of these assays using the response categories we established. The sensitivity of the three-test battery was high. Of the 553 carcinogens for which there were valid genotoxicity data, 93% of the rodent carcinogens evaluated in at least one assay gave positive results in at least one of the three tests. Combinations of two and three test systems had greater sensitivity than individual tests resulting in sensitivities of around 90% or more, depending on test combination. Only 19 carcinogens (out of 206 tested in all three tests, considering CA and MN as alternatives) gave consistently negative results in a full three-test battery. Most were either carcinogenic via a non-genotoxic mechanism (liver enzyme inducers, peroxisome proliferators, hormonal carcinogens) considered not necessarily relevant for humans, or were extremely weak (presumed) genotoxic carcinogens (e.g. N-nitrosodiphenylamine). Two carcinogens (5-chloro-o-toluidine, 1,1,2,2-tetrachloroethane) may have a genotoxic element to their carcinogenicity and may have been expected to produce positive results somewhere in the battery. We identified 183 chemicals that were non-carcinogenic after testing in both male and female rats and mice. There were genotoxicity data on 177 of these. The specificity of the Ames test was reasonable (73.9%), but all mammalian cell tests had very low specificity (i.e. below 45%), and this declined to extremely low levels in combinations of two and three test systems. When all three tests were performed, 75-95% of non-carcinogens gave positive (i.e. false positive) results in at least one test in the battery. The extremely low specificity highlights the importance of understanding the mechanism by which genotoxicity may be induced (whether it is relevant for the whole animal or human) and using weight of evidence approaches to assess the carcinogenic risk from a positive genotoxicity signal. It also highlights deficiencies in the current prediction from and understanding of such in vitro results for the in vivo situation. It may even signal the need for either a reassessment of the conditions and criteria for positive results (cytotoxicity, solubility, etc.) or the development and use of a completely new set of in vitro tests (e.g. mutation in transgenic cell lines, systems with inherent metabolic activity avoiding the use of S9, measurement of genetic changes in more cancer-relevant genes or hotspots of genes, etc.). It was very difficult to assess the performance of the in vitro MN test, particularly in combination with other assays, because the published database for this assay is relatively small at this time. The specificity values for the in vitro MN assay may improve if data from a larger proportion of the known non-carcinogens becomes available, and a larger published database of results with the MN assay is urgently needed if this test is to be appreciated for regulatory use. However, specificity levels of <50% will still be unacceptable. Despite these issues, by adopting a relative predictivity (RP) measure (ratio of real:false results), it was possible to establish that positive results in all three tests indicate the chemical is greater than three times more likely to be a rodent carcinogen than a non-carcinogen. Likewise, negative results in all three tests indicate the chemical is greater than two times more likely to be a rodent non-carcinogen than a carcinogen. This RP measure is considered a useful tool for industry to assess the likelihood of a chemical possessing carcinogenic potential from batteries of positive or negative results.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinogens / toxicity
  • Chromosome Aberrations
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lymphoma / chemically induced
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Micronucleus Tests
  • Mutagenicity Tests / methods*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Rats
  • Sensitivity and Specificity


  • Carcinogens