Humane Research Australia has just published an overview of methods and technologies that can replace animals in biomedical research, testing, education and training. “Better ways to do research: An overview of methods and technologies that can replace animals in biomedical research and testing” is available as a pdf document, free to read and download.
I am the author of the 74-page overview in plain English that outlines diverse methods and technologies, provides examples for their use, and suggests in what areas of research, testing and education they can replace animals. My sources are mostly scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals and government reports, and I provided references so that the interested reader may find out more from the original article or report.
Each year, millions of non-human animals worldwide are harmed by animal experimentation. An estimated more than 115 million animals are used each year to supply the biomedical industry. The countries that use the most animals include China, the US, Japan and Australia. About half these animals are used in fundamental or basic research. This is curiosity driven, exploratory research that aims to increase and advance scientific knowledge. Applied research aims to solve specific practical problems, such as using animals as a model to seek a cure for a human disease or condition. Animals are also used in (regulatory) testing and in education and training. Current laws in many countries make it difficult to avoid using animals for regulatory testing, but there is no legal requirement for other types of animal research.
For a long time, many people have considered the use of animals in research, testing, training and education a necessary evil. But more and more, people question the ethics of this approach. At the same time, the animal research community increasingly recognises the problems with animal research: it is costly, lengthy and not very effective. Also, it may have held back the discovery of treatments and cures for humans because they did not work well in animals.
For example, aspirin was patented in 1900. It is considered safe for human beings, but it would not have been possible to market aspirin with current methods and criteria for safety because it was found to cause birth defects in mice, rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, cats, dogs, sheep and monkeys.
The use of animals in science is outdated and unnecessary. Human-relevant methods that offer a more effective and ethical approach to science are available. Broadly, these include: In-vitro methods (performed with microorganisms, tissues, whole cells or parts of cells in test tubes, Petri dishes etc.), in-silico (computer-based) methods, studies with human volunteers, and simulators.
I will only highlight two of these methods here: organs-on-chips and read-across. Organs-on-chips are bio-engineered devices that mimic key aspects of the physiology and function of human organs. Scientists have used microchip manufacturing methods to engineer culture devices that contain tiny chambers and tunnels through which fluids flow in a controlled manner. Organs-on-chips enable the study of biological processes, the modelling of diseases and investigation of the effects of drugs. They can also be used in personalised medicine, where, for example, tissue samples of a patient can be grown on a chip and tested with different drugs to determine which drug is most likely to be most effective as a treatment for that patient.
For example, researchers have dosed a brain-on-a-chip with the street drug crystal methamphetamine (also called “ice”). Crystal meth is a stimulant drug that speeds up the messages moving between the brain and the rest of the body. After connecting three chips with different types of brain cells to model the blood-brain barrier and adding crystal meth, the researchers could observe how the drug affects the brain. They were able to observe previously unknown interactions between blood vessels and neurons in the brain.
Chemical and biological substances, such as newly developed drugs, need to be tested to determine whether they are harmful to humans, animals or plants. Currently, over 100,000 chemicals available on the market lack toxicity information. Safety testing reportedly costs US$10 – 20 million per product and takes several years. It is also difficult to obtain toxicological data for the 1,000 new chemicals created every year. Computer programs and large data bases can make testing of substances much faster and cheaper – and without using animals (although data obtained in the past from animals may be used).
For example, the read-across method uses data from a substance for which toxicity information is available, to make predictions for a similar substance about which not much is known. The software builds a map where similar chemicals are placed close to each other. Then, it places new chemicals on the map, based on their structural similarity with chemicals already on the map. The next step is to assess what is known about the new chemical’s neighbours, and from that information predict potential harmful health and environmental effects.
Human-relevant research and testing methods/technologies and their application
Governments, the scientific community, industry and other stakeholders, in particular in the EU and the US, have started to make efforts to pool knowledge and resources to replace animal experimentation with more humane, more human-relevant, and often cheaper and faster methods.
We need urgent change. From an animal rights perspective, it was never acceptable to inflict pain and suffering on animals for the real or perceived benefit of humans. For proponents of animal welfare, the use of animals is justified as long as harm is minimised. With awareness of the many shortcomings of animal research and testing and increasing availability of better ways, animal research is no longer justified.
We need to advocate for greater investment in innovative and promising non-animal methods, firm policy initiatives and robust collaborations of all interested parties, so that better treatments and cures for human diseases can be developed. This will also end the suffering of millions of animals.