Painless options

Posted on June 29, 2010. Filed under: Bio-diversity |

-The Star-Stories by S.S. YOGA

A look at alternatives to animal-testing.

WE are often led to believe that the only way to make sure any product is safe for human use is to test it on animals first. The pain, suffering and death of these animals are but a price that has to be paid.

We are told that dogs, for instance, have similar cardiovascular and respiratory systems to humans. Cats’ neurological systems are apparently very much like that of man’s. And non-human primates are the closest relatives to Homo sapiens.

Choices: There are a number of viable alternatives to animal-testing, such as using human tissues, cell cultivation and the usage of micro-organisms.

But do we know that there are actually other means to conduct trials on products, be it for cosmetics, body care, pharmaceuticals, household products, or industrial and agricultural products? The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), an animal protection and advocacy group, and the Dr Hadwen Trust, a British-based charity that funds non-animal alternatives, outline some of the options available.

BUAV communications and special projects director Sarah Kite opines that non-animal alternatives for testing can be cheaper, quicker and more effective, besides being more humane.

Silicon chip technology

This allows rapid identification of genes whose activity changes in response to certain diseases and drugs. It can help identify whether a drug or chemical is going to be therapeutic or harmful.

Kite quotes the example of the Toxichip, a cell-based biosensor, that could replace animals in toxicity screening. It was developed by scientists at the Tyndall National Institute in Cork, Ireland, and acts as a sensing system that monitors the effects of substances on human and animal cells in culture.

Toxichip works by detecting the cellular responses that occur as a result of toxicity. It can be used to examine the overall toxic effect of individual chemicals and combinations of these chemicals in areas such as environmental protection, and drug development and design.

Cell cultures

It is possible to obtain human cells and tissues from biopsies, post-mortems, placentas, or as waste from surgery, and grow them in the laboratory. The cells behave more simplistically than in the living body, though. Cellular systems have been central to key research on cancer, sepsis, Parkinson’s disease, kidney disease and AIDS, and are routinely used in chemical safety testing, vaccine production, drug development, and diagnosis of disease.

It is important that human cells, rather than animal cells, are used for medical research, to avoid the problem of relating results from one species to another. To encourage the use of human tissue, the Dr Hadwen Trust helped establish the UK Human Tissue Bank at Leicester. The Trust has funded research using human cells and tissues to replace animal experiments on Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, rheumatism, cataract, allergies and meningitis.

Human tissues

As an extension to cell cultures, healthy and diseased tissues can be obtained from human volunteers following biopsies, surgery or death. Blood or urine samples can also be easily taken. Post-mortem brain tissue has provided important leads to understanding brain regeneration and the effects of multiple sclerosis.

One important alternative is the Reconstituted Human Epidermis (RHE) skin model (trade names: EpiSkin, Epiderm and SkinEthic). The reconstituted human skin is derived from donated, discarded skin from cosmetic surgery. The models are used to test the irritancy of chemicals and cosmetics on the skin. One model has recently been shown to be more effective than the original rabbit Draize skin test which it replaces.

Animal rights activists, including Miss Malaysia/World 2009 Thanuja Anandan, are against animal-testing.

Micro-organisms

Tests with simple micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi, yeast and algae are being used as early indicators of chemicals likely to be harmful. They are often faster and cheaper than animal tests. Bacteria can be genetically manipulated to manufacture useful products such as human insulin and monoclonal antibodies which were previously obtained from animals.

Analytical technology

Technological advances have resulted in improved molecular methods for analysing and identifying new compounds and medicines. The Trust has provided analytical equipment to researchers selecting new anti-cancer and anti-malaria drugs based on their molecular interaction with human DNA.

Quantitative Structure/Activity Relationship programmes (QSARs)

These are computer programmes which can predict the toxicity of new chemicals or drugs based on their similarity to more established compounds.

The Trust has helped develop various computer models, including a model of the human placenta and foetus which assisted in the treatment of problems affecting unborn babies; and a model of the human jaw and teeth for dental research. These models are based on relevant human data and can be used to carry out simulated experiments, in place of experiments on animals.

The Trust has also supported work using mathematical modelling to improve cancer treatments, and to explore illnesses related to ageing.

Volunteer studies

One of the best ways to conduct medical research is by studying the human body. New scanning and imaging techniques are making it increasingly possible to conduct safe and ethical studies of human volunteers, where previously animals had been used.

The Trust projects have made use of a variety of sophisticated imaging techniques to non-invasively investigate the intact human body. These include using a Magneto­encepha­lo­­graphy scanner (which maps brain activity) to study epileptic patients; Magnetic Reso­nance Imaging to investigate pain in patients; and developing a novel technique, Transcra­nial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to study the function of the human brain in healthy volunteers. So even humans can get involved in testing and trials with no pain. Do we still need to look at animal-testing?

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