Non-animal approaches; the way forward

Monday, 23 January 2017

On 6 and 7 December 2016 a conference was organized by the European Union intended as a dialogue with the scientific community and relevant stakeholders, on how to exploit the advances in science towards the ultimate goal of phasing out animal testing. Christine Mummery held a presentation on the potential of stem cells.

An extremely ambitious goal, initiated in response to a European "Citizen's Action" to ban all animal testing in the EU by 2020. The EU is obliged to respond to any proposal by EU citizens supported by at least one million signatures. In support of this proposal, a remarkable 1.7 million signatures were collected, illustrating the importance of this issue to society.

Research scientists immediately reacted with "this is impossible" but the moderate response by the European Commission firstly to initiate an inventory of what is currently available among the animal alternatives and how best these could be implemented was considered too mild by the anti-vivisection group. They boycotted the conference and held their own meeting in parallel.

The conference began with an overview of animal testing today: its value and shortcomings, applications in toxicology and drug safety, clinical utility of non-invasive techniques and an overview of INFRAFRONTIER, a public resource for mammalian models in biomedical research. Two sessions then followed describing the strengths and limitations of non-animal alternatives from the biomedical research and regulatory perspectives. Clearly, the priority of the EU is to protect citizens from toxic effects of drugs and environmental chemicals, so that regulatory acceptance of alternatives and their independent validation, for example through the EMEA, is of high importance. Metabolomics of cells in culture, multiorgan-on-chip technologies, 3D-human organoids, a multiplicity of bioinformatics approaches and the potential of the "virtual physiological human" were all discussed by experts in the field. The expert speakers were from industry (AstraZeneca, Sanofi, Charles River Laboratories, Tissuse), patient advocacy (European Patient Forum, NL), animal alternative lobbies (NC3R, RSPCA), journal publishers and funders (Nature, Springer, Wellcome Trust) and academia throughout Europe. The audience of several hundred reflected the backgrounds of the speakers but included representatives from veterinary science.

In sum, the conclusion was that for some aspects of drug and chemical safety, good animal alternatives were well advanced but for reproductive toxicology, behavioural science and drug pharmacokinetics and clearance, animals would be needed for the foreseeable future. Abolishing all animal experiments in 2020 would have two possible consequences: increased risk to citizens and/or no new compounds introduced to market. Whilst banning of all animal experiments in the EU for cosmetic testing since 2009 was lauded as an EU success, the consequence is that no new ingredients have been introduced into cosmetics produced or imported into the EU since that date. Aside from a major impact on this industry in France for example, any improvements (new preservatives, anti-allergens, new raw materials) have been precluded from use.

Nevertheless, for hDMT, it was an exciting realization that organs-on-chip, with in silico approaches, are at the forefront of animal alternatives in development. A report of the meeting as a whole is pending and will be published in 2017.

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