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Behind Lab Doors: Could there ever be a world without animal testing?

In 2018, researchers from the University of Oxford tested a new cardiac drug on a virtual human for side effects with an accuracy of 89-96%, compared to 75% using rabbits.

JAMES HOCKADAY: When Anna Marsh was 20, she was prescribed an antidepressant called Nardil. Doctors warned the art student that she might put on some weight, but instead she grew thinner and found herself constantly drained of energy. Her fatigue became so extreme that she would often lie on the worktops at the Royal College of Art during her lunch break because she was too exhausted… Had Anna known her medication would have damaged her liver – leading to hepatitis and causing two years of debilitating fatigue – she says she never would have taken it…

After being told to come off her meds straight away, which induced ‘terrifying nightmares and hallucinations’, Anna then became so sick that she had to go back to her mum’s home in Suffolk and undergo daily blood and liver function tests… Now 73, Anna refuses to take any pills and won’t drink alcohol out of fear of what might happen to her liver… After all she went through, she became convinced that animal testing on medicine is not effective as it purports to be – as it wasn’t enough to prevent her ordeal… Ever since, she has spent her life campaigning for techniques she believes are more relevant to human bodies. It is clearly a touchy subject, as Anna asked for her name to be changed for safety reasons.

After protesting outside the Huntingdon Life Sciences laboratory in Suffolk in the late 90s, she woke up the following morning to find her front garden had been torn to shreds by saboteurs. ‘People who protest against animal testing have been demonised,’ she says. ‘The other side will say “you care more about animals than people”, but that’s not true, I’m living proof it’s not true – we need better science for everybody.’ It may have been 50 years since Anna’s health scare, but there have been more recent cases of medicines showing promising signs in animals but harming people.

In 2006, human trials for a drug called TGN1412 – designed to fight leukaemia, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis – ended in disaster. Within 16 hours of the drug being administered to eight young health men, they were all rushed to London’s Northwick Park Hospital with multiple organ failure. The drug had shown good signs in rabbits, dogs and monkeys, and human subjects were given a dose that was 500 times smaller. In interviews that followed, the men involved described feeling like their ‘eyeballs were going to pop out’ and that their brains ‘were on fire’…

Campaigners suggest that cases like this show that animals process chemicals differently to people and therefore aren’t the most reliable test subjects. ‘Let’s say chocolate was a drug that was going to cure depression and we did normal animal testing,’ explains Dr Donna MacMillan, a scientist for Humane Society International (HSI), an organisation dedicated to improving animal welfare worldwide ‘Chocolate is toxic to dogs, so we would throw that out at that stage, even though we know people can eat it.

‘Because they’ve been used for so long and all the time, resources and investment have always been in animal tests up until very recently. ‘If we were able to redirect funding into new technologies and develop more innovative novel approaches then we’d be able to move away from that.’ And many countries do appear to be doing just that – albeit at a slower pace than campaigners might like.

Last month the European Parliament passing a resolution to move away from animal testing – demanding the European Commission set out a plan. Meanwhile US Senators Rand Paul and Corey Booker introduced a bill to end mandatory animal testing. Just last week MPs in the UK argued passionately on the subject during a Parliamentary debate, following a government petition to ban animal testing signed by more than 235,000 people. Comedian Ricky Gervais has also started a parliamentary petition of his own calling for lab animals to be included in the Animal Welfare Act – signed by 100,000 people.

Clearly the demand for an end to animal testing is there, but is the technology? Already scientists are using computational models which can predict whether a chemical is likely to be toxic to humans. They can improve as they are fed more data – known as machine learning – and can even employ artificial intelligence for better accuracy. In 2018, researchers from the University of Oxford tested a new cardiac drug on a virtual human for side effects with an accuracy of 89-96%, compared to 75% using rabbits.

Dr MacMillan says computational models can have a good idea of a chemical’s impact, even if it’s new and has been nowhere near a human… Dr MacMillan adds this could be a more reliable way of predicting a drug’s effect than using an animal, which she likened to a ‘black box’. ‘If you run the same test in 10 different animals, you only get the same answer seven times out of 10,’ she says.

Another tool already being used by scientists are bio-engineered miniature organs, grown using human skin cells and used to test drugs. ‘A blinking eye has been created, and a breathing lung and a beating heart and a kidney that produces urine,’ says fellow HSI scientist Dr Lindsay Marshall. They don’t look anything like an organ you’d take from a human, she adds, rather it’s a functional unit of cells that have the same physiological function…

On top of this, there are 3D lab produced tissue models – artificial human skin – which can be used to test the irritability or corrosiveness of a chemical. Such models have led to a huge decline in the Draize test – which sees chemicals put on rabbits’ skin or eyes. By combining results of several techniques and putting it through a strict mathematical model, scientists can assess the hazards of a drug in what is known as a next-generation risk assessment. In the summer of 2021 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development adopted guidelines for this method to be used to test human skin’s sensitivity to chemicals instead of mice…

Given that many of these alternatives are already used by scientists, the big question is: why is animal testing is still a requirement across the world? ‘The regulators have to be risk averse, they can’t afford to let something out on the general public that they have any concerns about,’ explains Dr Marshall. ‘I don’t think they can see an easy way to replace it so they’re kind of just ticking along with that because it would take a lot for them to revisit their entire processes, everyone would have to be on board.’

However, there is already one organisation in Britain dedicated to doing just that. The NC3Rs awards millions in funding to a wide range of institutions with this aim of refining animal tests, reducing unnecessary suffering, and hopefully one day, replacing it altogether. It recently published a paper clarifying that forcing rats or mice to swim for antidepressant trials is not a requirement.

One researcher working in regenerative medicine told how he hates working on animals but is nonetheless bound by UK regulations. He asked not to give his name, given how people in his field have had bombs planted under their cars in the past by animal rights activists. ‘The scientific community are trying to be a bit more public about this – providing more information so the public can understand the topic better,’ he says. ‘But the people telling you that aren’t the ones with targets on their backs’…

Chris Magee, head of policy and media at Understanding Animal Research, believes animal rights groups often paint a narrative of scientists as being uncaring on this issue… ‘When the day comes that we don’t use animals, it won’t have anything at all to do with the anti-groups,’ he says adamantly. ‘They undermine the case for further investment by pretending that we’re already there. We’re not… ‘I get it that they’re passionate about it, but they’re also trying to steal the glory of the long march of science and they’re trying to paint people as psychopathic idiots’…

Chris says that animal testing for the vaccine was ‘crucial’… Although some people have been concerned about how quickly the Covid vaccine was developed, there’s been little outcry on what it was tested on – and neither has stopped over 45million people becoming fully vaccinated… ‘I did wonder at the beginning, is this going to make people change their minds about animal research because it happened at a faster pace?’ he admits… Dr Marshall says this is because ‘animal research as a body does a really good job of promoting itself’. ‘I feel like it’s really been rammed down my throat how important the animals are and how much of a hero the animals were, as if they had any say’. SOURCE…


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