Alternatives to animal testing

Testing new pharmaceutical and chemical products on animals has been a standard method for centuries. Yet, growing evidence shows that it might, in fact, be ineffective. Is it time to move on from animal-based experiments, and what are the alternatives?

10 December 2020

Profile view of concentrated Asian microbiologist examining sample with help of modern microscope while wrapped up in work at dim laboratory

By Mariusz Bogacki, Researcher and Science Communicator, Edinburgh

There’s no denying the fact that animal testing has played a major role in nearly every medical and veterinary breakthrough. The process remains popular in modern laboratories because, apart from protecting human lives, animal testing is reliable, cost effective and in many cases simply irreplaceable. Applying chemistry to biological systems is hugely complex and up until now there were few alternatives to experiment on.

In most cases animal testing follows a simple experimental procedure of controlling variables that might affect the behaviour of a biological system under the study. In order words: by applying a new product to a living organism, scientists are able to determine any adverse effects when compared to a controlled group where the product was not applied.

Organisations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have been arguing for years that animal testing is in many cases, ineffective. And, as science develops, more and more scientists are supporting these claims, pointing out that animal testing is poorly regulated, with many of the models currently in use being outdated.

What are the alternatives?

The MIE Atlas Team at the University of Cambridge has been working on a computation model based on chemistry to predict human molecular initiating events. In plain English, the MIE relate to initial interactions between a molecule of a tested product and a biomolecule of an animal organism. Relying entirely on computational analysis, the researchers were able to predict how such chemical processes might affect a living organism.

Another viable solution comes from biological research Centre for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT), at the John Hopkins University pioneers research into brain organoids – tissue cultures made from human stem cells that simulate the human organ. These artificial mini-organisms have already been used to study infections caused by viruses such as HIV, dengue and Zika. Organoids can also be produced to imitate other human organs such as lungs. Such micro physiological systems are proving increasingly effective for quality assurance in initial drug testing, reducing the need for animals in the process.

Finally, Researchers at the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods (CCAAM) at the University of Windsor in Ontario have been successfully experimenting with 3D bio-printed human tissue. Tissue for testing can be obtained from humans in order to 3D print organs such liver, lung, intestine, pancreas and even skeletal muscle. Such artificial models are used to test interaction with newly designed drugs and chemicals.Despite impressive advancements in biotechnology and computational analysis, animal testing remains the most ubiquitous method for testing new pharmaceuticals. This is largely due to regulations, where most governmental organisations still require products to be tested on animals in order to deem them safe for humans. However, new scientific solutions are slowly making animal testing a thing of the past.