Animal Experiments Could End in a Generation

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Animal Experiments Could End in a Generation

By Sam Lister, Health Editor,

The use of animal experiments could be replaced by research on “virtual human beings” and tests on banks of living cells within a generation, scientists say.

Computer modeling and advances in cell biology will allow researchers to assess new drugs far more precisely and without the involvement of animals. One innovation is the development of “micro-lungs” — lung cells extracted from transplant tissue, grown in a laboratory culture and then tested with drops of toxicants such as cosmetics to assess the response.

Scientists attending The Times Cheltenham Science Festival described how such tools had the potential to replace the use of large numbers of animals.

Kelly BéruBé, a cell biologist from Cardiff University, said that the advances were now moving very fast, and offered the prospect of enough quantitative data to allow much greater use of “virtual tests” in the next decade.

“These models have the ability to be far more accurate. I sometimes think it is just tradition — that feeling that if it’s safe in an animal it’s safe in a human — which means so many animal tests are still carried out.

“By recreating tissue environments, we will improve understanding of many aspects of cell behavior including wound healing and responses to therapeutic drugs without the use of animal models.”

Steven Manos, a computational scientist at University College London, said that an expanding database of computer simulation data — the Virtual Physiological Human Project — would lead to more effective treatments. But he added that even the most sophisticated computer models represented only “a small fraction of the complexity of animals”.

“Real reduction is therefore going to be a long-term, not near-term, goal,” he said.

There has been a fall in the number of animal experiments during the past 30 years to between two and three million a year, although in recent years the figures have started to creep up. The increases are mainly because of the growing use of genetically modified mice, which scientists are using to model human diseases, such as cystic fibrosis.

The vast majority of experiments take place on rodents, which are relatively easy to breed and keep, and share basic biology and chemistry with human beings. Dogs and cats are used much less frequently, with beagles the most common breed of dog used. In 1997 the Government ruled that no licenses would be issued for the use of great apes — gorillas, orang-utans and chimpanzees — in animal research.

The “Beyond Animal Research” debate, supported by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), in association with New Scientist, also heard from the science fiction author Paul McAuley, a biologist who has written on advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Future therapies would involve drugs “[That] are like highly trained snipers, precisely targeting affected cells and leaving everything else untouched”, he said, while people would look back on today’s medication as like Lung Kuro, the early 20th-century cure-all lung remedy that acted more like a painkiller palliative, containing alcohol, chloroform and heroin.

“In our granddaughter’s world, precise drug targeting, made possible by tests on microtissue cultures and virtual computer models of individuals, means that animal testing is no longer necessary,” he said.

The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research funds and develops non-animal alternatives and, where animals must still be used, works to minimize numbers and suffering.

The concept, which is a part of British and European law governing the use of animals, was first described by researchers in The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique, a publication commissioned in 1959 to celebrate the centenary of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species.

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