Light on the Horizon for Animals in Laboratories

Posted on September 30, 2009

ALDF Developing Symposia to Explore Non-animal Toxicity Tests

MouseLike many organizations dedicated to advancing the interests of animals, the Animal Legal Defense Fund welcomed a 2007 report from the National Research Council (NRC) that could mean an end to painful toxicity testing on animals. “Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century” called for a sustained, well-funded effort that moves away from using live animals to test the toxicity of industrial chemicals and pesticides to which humans are exposed and replaces them with humane alternatives, such as cell cultures, tissue cultures and computer models. Because using the law to protect the lives of animals exploited in laboratories is such a critical component of our mission, ALDF is helping to develop a series of groundbreaking symposia that will bring together the key people in science, governmental agencies and industry to discuss the problems and opportunities involved in making the sea change from animal testing to alternative methods.

ALDF has teamed with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School and the Environmental Law Institute to actively support the changes recommended in the NRC’s report, as ALDF Founder and General Counsel Joyce Tischler explains. “Our objective is to bring about a win-win for everyone–the animals, the scientists, the industries, environmentalists and public health advocates–by helping them work through the many questions of how to develop non-animal scientific techniques that are more cost-effective, faster and better predictors of toxicity,” she says. “This project is complex and many layered, and the change will not come as quickly as we would like, but we are feeling very hopeful.”

These symposia are of vital importance because, while the NRC’s vision is encouraging, it’s not enough. “Having better technologies and more data cannot alone change U.S. federal regulatory practice,” explains Dr. Paul Locke of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Data and technology are not self-implementing. If we want to create a path for a successful paradigm shift away from animal toxicity testing and toward more effective public health prevention, we must develop a roadmap to implement the report’s vision and strategy and build coalitions that will bring pressure on regulators, legislators and other decision makers to force a change in the way federal agencies operate.”

High-Throughput Screening

Toxicity testing forces animals to endure extreme pain and suffering in the interest of protecting human health. To test the toxicity of a compound, scientists currently inject it into a mouse, rat, rabbit or other animal and wait to see if the animal becomes sick or dies. With either result, the animal is autopsied so researchers can document any damage to her internal organs, and the tests are then extrapolated to human biology, providing only crude estimates of potential human health effects. Testing for toxicity includes checking whether a specific compound causes acute or chronic effects, such as neurological damage, cancer or reproductive abnormalities, and one of the major problems with animal testing–in addition to the harm done to the animals–is that the results do not always translate to humans.

Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency, which commissioned the NRC’s report, now recognizes that toxicity tests performed on animals are too slow and expensive to keep up with the rate at which chemical companies develop pesticides, cleaners and other potentially toxic compounds: there are more than 140,000 chemicals currently on the market, and about 700 new ones are added each year. The NRC Report recommends that, rather than testing each of these compounds on live animal “models,” researchers can use something called “high-throughput screening,” in which hundreds of human cells grown in a lab are inserted into each of the 1,536 “wells,” which are just a fraction of a millimeter across, housed on a single 3-by-5-inch glass tray. A robotic arm then drips a chemical sample into each tiny well, and a machine later determines how many cells remain while a computer analyzes the toxicity of each compound.

This process allows researchers to assess thousands of chemicals at one time. (In contrast, it has taken the agency 30 years to rigorously test just 5,000 potentially toxic compounds.) The EPA has already begun evaluating 300 chemicals using these new (non-animal) methods, and with the NRC’s plan as a blueprint, advances in molecular biology and computational sciences could be incorporated into toxicity testing and risk assessment practices across the agency.

Reaching Out

But, again, this much-needed progress won’t happen without the driving force of a coalition of advocates, which is why ALDF is playing a leading role in spearheading these symposia. “Our goal is to reach out to scientists, government regulators, the industries that develop chemicals and other products, and environmentalist–the people who can make this vision a reality,” says Tischler. “If we are successful, it will mean that, within our lifetime, hundreds of thousands of animals per year will be freed from the horrific suffering and death caused by toxicity testing.”

Our first symposium, held June 29-30 at the University of Ottawa, took an international perspective as the panelists examined the scientific, risk assessment and implementation challenges and opportunities generated by the NRC’s report. “These symposia are focused on creating the implementation road map that will lead regulatory agencies to adopt the NRC vision and strategy,” says Dr. Locke. “They are designed to bring together bench scientists, regulators, environmental health professionals and animal welfare advocates in a series of one-and-half-day discussions, during which implementation opportunities and challenges will be developed, and the hard questions that could hold back progress will be addressed.”

Future symposia will be held in Portland, Oregon; Chicago; Washington, DC; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. These meetings will focus on economic issues, what laws and regulations will need to be changed, and how to encourage the scientific development of alternative methods for testing.

“The NRC report may be the light at the end of the tunnel after decades of ethical debate about the use of animals in laboratory testing,” says Stephen Wells, ALDF’s executive director. “Though the cruelty inherent in such tests could never be denied, for the first time, the scientific community is recognizing that new non-animal technologies will make for better, more reliable test results.”