Realistic alternatives to animal testing are feasible, but not so simple

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

As the European Commission contemplates a ban on testing animals for cosmetic products, researchers have begun to hunt for alternate testing strategies for allergies and toxicity, cosmetics or more serious science.

The EC in 2012 released a 372-page book from on alternatives to replace animal tests.  Its Safety Evaluation Ultimately Replacing Animal Animal Testing (SEURAT) project’s first phase initially focused on cosmetics and personal care products, but the tools and techniques could apply for other studies too.The alternatives range from a prototype bioreactor that makes cells and tissues; to a computer prediction of a chemical’s effect inside your body.

SEURAT’s  database of properties of 40,000 chemicals will help in computational modelling and prediction of safety levels of chemicals. From 1 Jan 2013, the EC will make it mandatory for scientists conducting animal tests to first  prove that they first searched the databases for alternate testing.

Scientists are hunting for alternatives to animal testing. Photo: Flickr.com

So far, so good. But there are problems still to be solved, an ESOF session has heard.

For one, there are similar chemicals with almost identical properties and mechanisms of action, some of which are toxic and others are not. So do scientists need to test all the similar chemicals of interest in a particular toxicity or allergy test?

Computational chemistry can reduce or replace the use of animals “for some end points, some chemicals,” Mark Cromin, professor of predictive toxicology at Liverpool John Moores University, UK, said.

“In vitro” tests or tests on cells in the laboratory do not always mimic complex organs composed of many different types of cells. Similarly, chemical tests on cells in isolation may miss out on other aspects of the cells behaviour that is evident in an entire system – for example networking properties of nerve cells within the brain.

“The scientific challenge is to develop more complex testing strategies,” Roel Schins, a  nanotoxicology researcher from University of Dusseldorf, Germany, said.

Alternate tests need to be both relevant and reliable so that they can be used widely and can be scaled up to meet demand, observed Maurice Whelan, from the EC’s Institute of Health and Consumer Protection.

Yet there are exciting options to explore and improve, the panelists agreed.

The animals will be relieved to hear that.

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

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