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Lab Times



Publication Analysis 2005-2011

Photo: Fotolia/manfredxy


Toxicological research has turned from the

study of naturally occurring toxins to man-

made contaminants, effecting our health and

ecosystems. Highly cited toxicology labs are

found all over Europe, with hot spots in Ed-

inburgh and Stockholm.


uilty” said the man in the back, “He’s guilty and must

die,” yelled another. The executioner, knowing, nod-

ded his head and crushed the hemlock leaves to pre-

pare the convict’s final drink. As the toxic liquid flowed through

his body, his feet became numb, then his legs – but he was still

wide awake. When the poison reached his diaphragm, he stopped

breathing and died a peaceful but tragic death.

Poison hemlock (

Conium maculatum

) is one of the most toxic

plants in Europe (besides the wolf’s bane,

Aconitum napellus

). Its

most potent toxin, coniine, binds to nicotinic acetylcholine recep-

tors of the peripheral nervous system, causing ascending muscu-

lar paralysis. In ancient Greece, it was served as a death cocktail

to damned delinquents – just like philosopher Socrates. Having

toxicological knowledge, however, was not only advantageous in

old-fashioned jurisdiction; more recently toxins have also helped

to unravel basic biological relations. The insecticide rotenone,

for instance, was used to elucidate the workings of the respira-

tory chain in mitochondria and 19


century French physiologist,

Claude Bernard, studied the neuromuscular junction with the ar-

row poison, curare. Speaking of bows and arrows, the world ‘tox-

icology’ is derived from the ancient Greek word



meaning bow.

Modern toxicologists are, however, a little bit less interested

in naturally occurring toxic substances. Many of them focus more

on man-made compounds with as yet unknown effects on health

and ecosystems, as we shall see later.

First, let’s have a look at European countries’ performance in

toxicology-themed research. As we haven’t yet figured out a way

to filter out toxicological papers from multidisciplinary journals,

the numbers for total citations, articles and the citation-per-ar-

ticle ratio are based on specialist journals like

Aquatic Toxicolo-





Toxicological Sciences

only. For the most-cit-

ed authors in toxicology, we decided not to discriminate between

specialist and non-specialist journals.

Good ratios for Slovakia, Scotland and Switzerland

No surprise at the top of the nations’ performance list: Eng-

land and Germany are the top two countries, far ahead of France

and Italy in third and fourth place. Turkey scored a good 12


place but another country pushed itself to the fore even more.

Despite just about missing the top 20, Slovakia is the undisput-

ed number one when it comes to citations-per-article (30.3). Not

even Scotland (28.1) and Switzerland (26.0) were able to keep

up. The global comparison revealed one more surprise. Where-

as in other disciplines they are usually way behind their US col-

leagues, here, European toxicologists received more citations per

article than their US peers, or from any of the analysed countries,

for that matter.

Now, we have arrived at toxicology’s hottest papers, published

between 2005 and 2011. Interestingly, four of the top five papers

are about cytotoxicity. How does basic cell biology relate to toxi-

cology? In 2006, Sten Orrenius and Boris Zhivatovsky from the

Karolinska Institute in Stockholm rhetorically asked: Does it mat-

ter how cells die? Their prompt answer: “Yes, for our understand-

ing of chemical hazards and the mechanisms by which toxicants

can damage our cells and tissues, it certainly does! Cell death is

the ultimate result of toxicity, and elucidating the signalling path-

ways involved is highly relevant for our understanding of the cel-

lular targets and mechanisms of action of chemical toxins.”

With their cellular toxicology approach, Orrenius (16


) and

Zhivatovsky (4


) also secured themselves a spot in the top 30 tox-

icologists in Europe. Once again, it wasn’t easy to separate the

‘toxic’ wheat from the ‘non-toxic’ chaff. A most important criteri-

on for inclusion was the number of papers in toxicology specialist

journals. To epidemiologists, we paid special attention and decid-

ed on a case-by-case basis.

‘Toxic clusters’ in Sweden and Scotland

Considering the researchers’ home affiliations, all four cor-

ners of Europe are well-represented in our top 30. North (Swe-

den, Denmark), East (Czech Republic), South (Spain, Italy, Por-

tugal) and West (England, Belgium, Germany, Scotland, Aus-

tria, the Netherlands) – toxicology is an important research disci-

pline almost everywhere in Europe. But there are ‘toxic clusters’:

the University of Edinburgh (fielding three researchers) is one

and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm (fielding four) another.

Among our top 30 are also three women.

The dangers from eating poisonous plants seem to be more

or less eliminated but that doesn’t mean we are safe from toxic

harm. On the contrary, we, or our bodies, now have to deal with

modern poisons in the air, our food, drinking water, clothes and

homes. The majority of our top 30 toxicologists, thus, monitors

or studies health effects of exposure to toxic substances, such as

nanoparticles and nanomaterials (Vicki Stone, 5


; Rodger Duffin,



; Steffen Loft, 12


; Richard Handy, 22


), metals, like cadmi-

um, mercury and lead (Josep Domingo, 6


; Marie Vahter, 14