Alternatives: Testing Without Torture
Besides saving countless animal lives, alternatives to animal tests are efficient and reliable. Unlike animal tests, non-animal methods usually take less time to complete, cost only a fraction of what the animal experiments they replace cost, and are not plagued with species differences that make extrapolation difficult or impossible. Effective, affordable, and humane research methods include studies of human populations, volunteers, and patients, as well as sophisticated in vitro, genomic, and computer-modeling techniques.
Forward-thinking companies are exploring modern alternatives. For example, Pharmagene Laboratories, based in Royston, England, is the first company to use only human tissues and sophisticated computer technologies in the process of drug development and testing. With tools from molecular biology, biochemistry, and analytical pharmacology, Pharmagene conducts extensive studies of human genes and how drugs affect those genes or the proteins they make. While some companies have used animal tissues for this purpose, Pharmagene scientists believe that the discovery process is much more efficient with human tissues. “If you have information on human genes, what’s the point of going back to animals?” says Pharmagene cofounder Gordon Baxter.1
Alternatives for Research
Comparative studies of human populations allow doctors and scientists to discover the root causes of human diseases and disorders so that preventive action can be taken. Epidemiological studies led to the discoveries of the relationship between smoking and cancer and to the identification of heart disease risk factors.2 Population studies also demonstrated the mechanism of the transmission of AIDS and other infectious diseases and also showed how these diseases can be prevented.3
In the course of treating patients, much has been learned about the causes of diseases and disorders. Studies of human patients using sophisticated scanning technology (e.g., MRI, PET, and CT) have isolated abnormalities in the brains of patients with schizophrenia and other disorders.4
Cell and tissue culture (in vitro) studies are used to screen for anti-cancer, anti-AIDS, and other types of drugs, and they are also a means of producing and testing a number of other pharmaceutical products, including vaccines, antibiotics, and therapeutic proteins. The U.S. National Disease Research Interchange provides more than 120 types of human tissue to scientists investigating diabetes, cancer, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, glaucoma, and other human diseases.5 In vitro genetic research has isolated specific markers, genes, and proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease, muscular dystrophy, schizophrenia, and other inherited diseases.
Those who experiment on animals artificially induce disease; clinical investigators study people who are already ill or who have died. Animal experimenters want a disposable “research subject” who can be manipulated as desired and killed when convenient; clinicians must do no harm to their patients or study participants. Animal experimenters face the unavoidable fact that their artificially created “animal model” can never fully reflect the human condition, whereas clinical investigators know that the results of their work are directly relevant to people.
Alternatives for Testing
Alternatives to the use of animals in toxicity testing include replacing animal tests with non-animal methods, as well as modifying animal-based tests to reduce the number of animals used and to minimize pain and distress. Non-animal tests are generally faster and less expensive than the animal tests they replace and improve upon.
To date, several non-animal test methods have been formally validated and accepted by some countries as replacements for an existing animal test. Examples include:
- An embryonic stem cell test, using mouse-derived cells to assess potential toxicity to developing embryos, has been validated as a partial replacement for birth-defect testing in rats and rabbits.6
- The 3T3 Neutral Red Uptake Phototoxicity Test, which uses cells grown in culture to assess the potential for sunlight-induced (“photo”) irritation to the skin.
- Human skin model tests such as the validated EpiDerm™ test, which has been accepted almost universally as a total replacement for skin corrosion studies in rabbits.7
- The use of human skin leftover from surgical procedures or donated cadavers can be used to measure the rate at which a chemical is able to penetrate the skin.
- The use of a clinical patch test in human volunteers, which can confirm that a chemical will not cause irritation or allergic skin reactions.8
Alternatives for Education
The majority of medical schools in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, have replaced their use of live animals in physiology, pharmacology, and/or surgical-training exercises with humane and effective non-animal teaching methods, including observation of actual human cardiac bypass surgery, patient simulators, cadavers, sophisticated computer programs, and more.
In addition to being more humane, non-animal teaching tools such as computer simulations and models are also more economical than traditional animal-based teaching exercises.9 Whereas the “traditional” approach involves the acquisition and disposal of animals on an ongoing basis, purchasing a set of DVDs represents a one-time cost for a product that can be used repeatedly for many years. Schools can save tens of thousands of dollars each year by implementing re-usable replacements for animal “specimens.”
Studies have shown that non-animal teaching methods are as effective as older, less humane methods. For example:
- A study of first-year biology undergraduates found that examination results of those students who used model rats were equivalent to those who had performed rat dissections.10
- A similar study examined a class of first-year biology students, half of whom used traditional “hands-on” laboratories while the remainder used computer software. Biology knowledge of the computer-taught students increased significantly more than did that of the traditional group.11
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1Andy Coghlan, “Pioneers Cut Out Animal Experiments,” New Scientist, 31 Aug. 1996.
2Christopher Anderegg et al., “A Critical Look at Animal Experimentation,” Medical Research Modernization Committee, 2002.
3Samuel Baron et al., Medical Microbiology, 4th ed., University of Texas: Churchill Livingstone Inc., 1996.
4Kelvin O. Lim et al., “In Vivo Structural Brain Assessment,” The American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2000.
5National Resource Center, “Human Tissue Lists,” National Disease Research Exchange.
6Michael Balls, “The Use of Scientifically-Validated In Vitro Tests for Embryotoxicity,” European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods, 3 Jun. 2002.
7Michael Balls, “Statement on the Application of the Epiderm™ Human Skin Model For Skin Corrosivity Testing,” European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods, 21 Mar. 2000.
8Government of Canada, “Guidelines for the Notification of New Substances: Chemicals and Polymers,” Aug. 2001.
9Jonathan Balcombe, The Use of Animals in Higher Education: Problems, Alternatives, and Recommendations, Washington, D.C.: Humane Society Press, 2000.