Alternatives to Animal Testing - The future of R&D?

Animal testing is considered a critical step for measuring the safety and efficacy of the new treatments. Each year millions of animals – mice, rats, frogs, dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, monkeys, fish, and birds fall prey in testing labs for human needs. The animals are locked inside cages and used for different cosmetic and pharmaceutical testing, for biological lessons and for experimentations to name just a few. Some have chemicals put in their eyes to drilling holes in their heads, these voiceless creatures are tortured in labs. They languish in pain and wait for the next step of experiments to be performed on them.

For around 100 years, millions of animals have been used in research for the development of new and more effective methods of diagnosing and treating diseases affecting both humans and animals.

Animals have a shorter lifespan than humans making it easy for the scientists to study their entire life span or across several generations. Animals have been widely used for scientific research of human diseases. Around 33% of the animal testing is done to develop vaccines and medicines and also performing their safety testing. About 12% of animal testings are done to study different animal diseases and for animal welfare which includes study of farm animal diseases. Some tests are performed to study the animal feed as well. 

In most countries, animals are used to test the safety of new substances, it depends on the nature of the substance which determines how the test is going to be performed. Animals can be forced to breath in these chemicals, forced to swallow the substance, get it rubbed on their skin or in their eyes, get it injected into their bodies or even pushed into a body orifice. Before a company treats a human being with its newest discoveries, these discoveries need to be proven safe and effective. Thus, animals have been used primarily for regulatory and human safety reasons. Mice and rabbits have been the most popular animals to test the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of drugs.

Diseases that are artificially induced in animals in a laboratory are never identical to those that occur naturally in human beings. Animal species differ from one another in many ways; especially biologically. It becomes even more unlikely that animal experiments will yield results that will be correctly interpreted. Humans and animals don’t always react the same way to a drug. A number of drugs fail in human trials despite rigorous animal testings and pre clinical trials. On an average, a pharmaceutical industry spends approximately $1.2 billion to take a drug from the discovery stage to the patient. A failure at the human trial stage can lead to heavy losses for pharmaceutical firms. The lost money is made up by hiking prices for approved drugs which in turn falls heavy on patients’ pockets. This vicious cycle can be avoided by creating better and near-human testing standards for the pre-human trials phases.

NIH states that 95% of the drugs that test safe in animals fail during human trials. Many countries around the world are working towards the complete ban of animal testing. There are over 40 countries which have restricted or banned animal testing on cosmetics and cosmetic ingredients. In 2009, the ban on testing cosmetics was passed in Europe but animals were still being tested for repeated dose toxicity, reproductive toxicity and toxicokinetics. In 2013, all European countries banned the production and marketing of cosmetics and ingredients tested on animals. India took the historic step to ban animal testing and became the first South Asian country to go “cruelty-free”.

Experimenting scientists working on animals argue that it is better to kill a few animals to save lives of 1000 humans.

Animal experiments are sadly not on a decline, in some parts of the world it is still the same. According to a report published in the Alternatives journal, Altex, a total of 10.5 million experiments were performed in the 27 European member states.

According to the latest figures (2018), a total of 3.52 million animal experiments were completed in the UK during 2018. Around 49% of the tests were done to create and breed genetically modified species, 51% were the real tests performed on animals for testing.

It has to be understood that replacing animal testing will not put the human patients at risk, instead the old methodologies need to be replaced with the suitable alternative testing methods. These alternatives to animal testing include sophisticated tests using human cells and tissues (also known as in vitro methods) or using computer modelling testing. These alternative testing methods usually take less time, cost a fraction of that for animal studies and are not plagued by species differentiations.

In Vitro Techniques

New products with certain new ingredients need to be tested for safety purposes. OECD has taken steps to validate certain in vitro models as an alternative to animal testing. Episkin (Lóreal) and EpiDerm (Mattek) are two of the widely used in-vitro reconstructed human skin models for various toxicity and efficacy testing.

3D Bioprinting

Bioprinting allows automated printing of complex tissues by enabling precise cell positioning and construction of intricate 3D tissue architectures. A number of scientists are working on 3D bioprinting and building organs, be it cornea, skin, liver, etc. Organovo, one of the pioneers of 3D Bioprinting had successfully bioprinted liver model.

We at Next Big Innovation Labs, have developed 3D Bioprinted Skin, Innoskin® HE, which can be used as an alternative to animal testing for toxicity and efficacy testing in pharmaceuticals,cosmetics and chemical product research.

Organ-on-a-chip

An organ-on-a-chip is a 3D microfluidic chip which simulates mechanical and physiological responses of entire organs and organ systems. The goal of this alternative is not to form a completely living organ but to create minimal functional units that can replicate functions of tissues and organs. 

An Organ-on-a-chip can be used to investigate the effects of drugs, as well as the causes of diseases. These models not only offer a cost-effective method of testing but also are ethically justifiable alternatives to animal experiments and in vitro testing methods.

The Harvard’s Wyss Institute, HµRel Corporation and Mimetas have also created organ-on-chips and are focussed to turn these into viable alternatives for the researchers.

Although technological advances have been made in alternative testing methodologies. The human race still has a long way to tread in order to completely eliminate the requirement for animal testing. Researchers in the tissue engineering domain have found it difficult to accurately reproduce the complexity of native tissues within an in-vitro setup. New technologies are slowly, but steadily, allowing researchers to gain command over the in-vitro mimicry of human physiology. With increasing awareness about the consequences and ethical issues of animal testing and with the growth of cutting edge technology, such as 3D Bioprinting, we will, in the near future, completely eliminate the need to test our cosmetics, medicines and chemicals on our furry friends.

Author - Anubha Mehra

Anubha handles marketing, IP and regulatory activities within Next Big Innovation Labs. She is an experienced marketeer who focusses on building customer oriented marketing strategies for biotech led enterprises. Working on the IP and regulatory aspects of NBIL, Anubha understands the various nuances involved in building and marketing patentable and innovative products.