Will the USA be first to stop testing chemicals on animals?

A recent report published by the US National Research Council (NRC) acknowledges the importance of using biological material of human origin, in conjunction with the modern science of toxicogenomics. Antidote Europe sees this as a positive development.

The US National Research Council (NRC) recently published a report entitled “Toxicity testing in the Twenty-first century: a vision and a strategy” external link, in which it criticises the shortcomings of animal experiments and promotes the idea of utilising cells and tissues of human origin. That the shift away from laboratory animals makes good business sense is confirmed by the fact that the chemical and pharmaceutical industry have begun to adopt this new approach. It could not have come at a better time for the EU, whose chemical testing program, REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) has just entered into force.

Based on the European Commission’s own admission that we live in a sea of 100,000 chemicals, in addition to the substantial weight of scientific evidence linking long-term exposure to chemical “cocktails” it is worrying, but not surprising, that we are in the grip of a major increase in serious health problems. These include many forms of juvenile and adult cancer, neurodegenerative conditions (such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease) and asthma, to name the most common. The reason why so many harmful chemicals have managed to slip through the “safety screen” of our regulatory authorities has been summed up succinctly by Professor Thomas Hartung, director of ECVAM (European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods) and a scientific advisor to the European Commission, who described animal tests as representing “simply bad science”.

A truly scientific approach to toxicity testing is therefore well overdue. The NRC report fully recognises the pitfalls inherent in trying to apply animal data to humans. In its place it strongly recommends the use of modern methods of chemical testing, based chiefly on gene studies in cell culture and computational biology. This new approach, according to the NRC, has the potential to transform “toxicity testing from a system based on whole animal testing to one founded primarily on in vitro methods that evaluate changes in biologic processes using cells, cell lines, or cellular components, preferably of human origin.”

Interestingly, the pharmaceutical and the chemical industry do not necessarily share the same strategy in this respect. An article published in an early August edition of the journal Chemical Engineering News makes clear this point in a reference to the NRCreport. Whereas the pharmaceutical industry relies increasingly on tissues of human origin in order to screen promising drugs, the chemical industry traditionally looks to animal tests to help market its products. In fact, it makes good economic sense for EU industrialists to embrace human-based tests for REACH, since animal testing turns out to be far more expensive, in addition to being “simply bad science”.

Antidote Europe and similar-minded groups have succeeded in pushing for some of theNRC recommendations to be incorporated in the REACH legislation. In addition, Antidote Europe’s scientists have contributed their expertise in providing a novel approach to these human-based testing methods, whereby hundreds of chemical substances can be tested over a very short period of time, as an early screen. Results are obtained in less than a week, whereas this type of test in animals can take up to two years to complete. Similarly, the new approach is considerably more cost-effective, in the range of 10,000 euros per substance versus several hundred thousand euros using whole animals.