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OF MICE AND SUPERMEN: Could COVID spell the end of animal testing?  

Public pressure is key to ending animal testing. In 2013, after the EU banned cosmetic testing on animals, animal-free testing methodologies were suddenly in high demand.

ROBERTA STALEY: A menagerie of genetically engineered mice, rats, macaque monkeys, rats, ferrets, hamsters, dogs and even horses have been enlisted in the race to find drugs and vaccines to thwart severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the infectious agent responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic… But some scientists and medical professionals are crying foul. The animals that are being used as laboratory test subjects in the search for COVID-19 therapeutics might be hindering, rather than helping, the race, they say… A growing number of scientists suggest that accelerated COVID-19 research is exposing animal modelling for what many have long claimed it to be: a scientific anachronism…

Dr. Thomas Hartung is the director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT), a laboratory for developmental neurotoxicity research based on genomics and metabolomics at Johns Hopkins University. Hartung points to the slow trajectory of drug and vaccine development using animal modelling… Equally problematic, if not even more eyebrow raising: 95% of new drugs that enter clinical trials don’t make it to the market, according to the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). In other words, the vast majority of new drugs fail once they move into human studies, despite appearing safe and effective in experiments with animals…

Hartung, highly regarded in the field of animal-testing alternatives, pioneered a patent on brain organoids, which are tissue cultures made from human stem cells that simulate the human organ… Hartung points to other uses of organs on a microchip, such as human lung organoids that breathe. This past April, researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering reported that human-lung airway chips demonstrated that two drugs, amodiaquine and toremifene, significantly inhibited entry of the COVID-19 virus into the human body.

Such models are proving effective for quality assurance and demonstrating that a drug is therapeutically effective, helping researchers leapfrog over animal modelling. Additional benefits include toxicity testing of newly developed drugs, giving more accurate results at a lower cost, Hartung adds… Micro human organs aren’t the only scientific advances pushing animal modelling to the side. Sophisticated computer modelling has already begun to replace standard safety practices for chemicals, such as dropping compounds into rabbits’ eyes or feeding substances to rats to establish lethal doses…

Despite such advances, animal modelling is still regarded as the gold standard of research and is required for regulatory approval from Health Canada. The federal department demands that researchers use animals when testing the safety of chemicals found in food and household items, pharmaceuticals or medical equipment. Canada (and the U.S.) also allows the use of animals for testing cosmetics, even though the practice has been banned in the U.K. since 1998. The European Union banned cosmetic testing on animals in 2013 but modified the legislation this past summer to allow for a handful of exceptions…

Public pressure is key to a decline in animal modelling. The cosmetic industry bowed to public pressure; will other sectors bow too? A private lab in Cheshire, England, called XCellR8 thinks so. Founded in 2008 by Dr. Carol Treasure and Bushra Sim, XCellR8 is striving to “accelerate the world’s transition to animal-free testing,” says Susie Lee-Kilgariff, the company’s marketing director. In 2013, after the EU banned cosmetic testing on animals, XCellR8’s animal-free testing methodologies were suddenly in high demand.

Today, clients of XCellR8 include numerous multinationals, such as beauty giants The Body Shop and Lush. Clients have embraced ethical approaches to product testing simply as a part of doing business. It also means they can claim to uphold “vegan supply chains,” with customers assured that they are buying vegan products, Lee-Kilgariff says. With ethical consumerism an ever-growing trend, other businesses, including pharmaceutical companies, that can lay claim to “cruelty-free” therapeutics will have an advantage in the marketplace of the future.

The grim battle against COVID-19 is accelerating the emergence of a new frontier in science. Increasingly, this means looking at alternatives to animal modelling to accelerate therapeutics that will save millions of people from death and sickness. Such advancements will also save the millions of creatures who have long been science’s unwilling servants and victims. SOURCE…

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