Animal Defenders International


Animal Defenders International

The Primate Nations: Advanced Techniques: alternatives to the use of animals in research

Posted: 1 September 2006

Those with a vested interest in animal research like to claim to be at the forefront of medical and scientific advancement. However, it is estimated that 98% or more of cancer research in the UK does not involve animals anyway(110). Since cancer studies counts for a significant proportion of animal procedures, it follows that in most areas of medical research, the division would be comparable or there would be a reduced percentage of animal work.

Furthermore, a study carried out in 2005 shows that many common drugs and household chemicals have been certified as safe for humans on the basis of animal tests that are accurate, on average, just over half the time(55). Pregnant women are particularly at risk, from drugs and chemicals that can cause birth defects during pregnancy. By testing such products on animals, one of the study’s authors claims that “we are betting the health of our children on odds just slightly better than a coin flip”(111).

Currently around one third of drug candidates fail in the first human trials. For medical research we need the precision of modern technology and human based study, not the unreliable results produced by animal experiments. Non-animal techniques tend to be faster, cheaper and more rigorous, such as by allowing for larger sample sizes and greater reproducibility(112).

The public wants safer products, but is clearly unhappy about the use of animals in testing and wants to see other methods employed. Two thirds of the public in UK say that they are concerned about the use of animals in research, and by far the main reason for this concern is the potential suffering of laboratory animals(113). The same poll revealed that 46% of the public say that they view medical research using monkeys is unacceptable, even if all welfare regulations were well enforced.

Advanced techniques include: computer database and analytical programmes; tissue and cell cultures, organ culture, computer modelling, QSARs (programmes showing chemical structure-activity relationships), other cytotoxicity tests,
HPLC, epidemiology, and patient studies. Accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) is an analytical tool of unprecedented sensitivity; it can be used to study samples from human volunteers given harmless ultra-low doses of drug candidates at an early stage of development. It avoids animal tests and is safer for humans.

In neuroscience there have been dramatic developments in non-invasive scanning techniques. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) enables visualisation of brain cortex function, in response to physical tasks, by detecting an increased flow of oxygenated blood in areas of nerve activity. This can be combined with magneto-encephalography (MEG) to enable spatial and temporal readings of brain activity. This allows doctors or researchers to clearly track in human volunteers not just which areas of the brain are active, but when. Another non-invasive brain imaging technique which can be readily used on human volunteers is synthetic aperture magnetometry (SAM), which measures the brain’s electrical activity.

Examples of alternative research supported by the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research (LDF):
An fMRI facility at Aston University, and is committed to doing so until the end of the decade. fMRI allows scientists to study exactly which parts of the brain are involved in a range of different activities, including movement, sight, hearing, feeling – even the creation of memories. It does this by comparing differences in the quantity of blood around the brain. Since those areas of the brain responsible for a given activity require more energy – and hence blood – than do others, fMRI can be used to identify where these areas lie, by producing maps of blood distribution around the brain.

Using synthetic aperture magnetometry (SAM), a model of human gut hypersensitivity has been produced which identified various regions of the brain responsible for the interpretation of signals from the gut and their role in the gut hypersensitivity syndrome and the characteristics of certain forms of chest pain.

Development of non animal-based techniques for research into neurotoxicity using cultured human brain cells. The purpose behind this research is to learn more about which particular substances cause nerve damage in the brain, and how and why this occurs. Neurotoxicity research has the potential to help us find treatments for brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Motor Neurone Disease.

Other examples of alternatives to primate research:

One of the criticisms of alternatives based on cell culture by those who use primates is that while they may use human tissue, they do not detect potentially crucial “whole body” effects. However it has to be remembered that is the wrong body – the effects seen in one species may not necessarily be seen in another.

In terms of testing new drugs, this is where a system such as Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, or AMS, come in as it can track the effects of a compound as it passes through the body. How the body responds to the drug – for example, its conversion of the original drug into other molecules, and how long they stay in the body – is then studied. The result is a technique that produces a host of whole-body data about a new drug safely, reliably and without using animals.

Several pharmaceutical companies have now begun their own studies of microdosing, and the EU Microdosing Programme (EUMAPP) aims to boost Europe’s expertise in micodosing and its application of AMS to developing new candidate drugs for treating diseases the world over.

As many as one in three drugs fail in Phase I clinical trials (i.e. testing them on healthy subjects) despite extensive preclinical tests on, among other things, animal models. However, microdosing offers a new and potentially more reliable way of developing drugs, and EUMAPP promises to advance the technique further.

A large proportion of the alternative methods developed so far – including ones that have replaced the need for primates in research – take advantage of the culture of cells, tissues and organs. As far back as 1985, an editorial in the medical journal The Lancet stated that “In recent years, many animal tests for the safety of viral vaccines have been replaced by cell-culture tests, which are more sensitive and reliable".

Vaccine development and screening have been revolutionised by the use of cell culture techniques. Rabies and polio vaccines have been produced using in vitro methods. The resultant vaccines are superior in purity and the lack of side effects (and risks of unknown monkey viruses) to the previously animal-based compounds. The production and testing of polio vaccines in the UK and USA once used around 55,000 monkeys annually. In 1980 the World Health Organisation recommended that specific cell culture tests which had been developed were more reliable and ensured a higher level of safety testing for polio vaccine than reliance upon the use of primates.

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