There is a wide range of non-animal research techniques that, as well as being a humane approach to science, can also be cheaper, quicker and more effective. These include cell, tissue and organ culture; micro-organisms such as bacteria; molecular research; studies with post-mortem tissues; computer simulations, including QSARs; population studies (epidemiology) and clinical research with human volunteers. Here are just a few examples:
Almost every type of human cell can be grown in culture, although the cells behave more simplistically than in the living body. Cellular systems have been central to key research into cancers, sepsis, kidney disease and AIDS, and are routinely used in chemical safety testing, vaccine production and drug development.
Silicon chips allow for the rapid identification of genes whose activity changes in response to certain diseases and drugs. They can help identify whether a drug or chemical is going to be therapeutic or harmful.
More recently, ‘organ-on-a-chip’ have been developed which contain real, living human cells from different organs that can be linked together to mimic the entire human body. These innovative devices can be used to evaluate the safety and efficacy of potential drugs as well as in toxicity testing.
Both healthy and diseased tissues can be donated from human volunteers after 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 and Parkinson’s disease.
One important alternative is the Reconstituted Human Epidermis (RHE) skin model (Trade names, Episkin, Epiderm and SkinEthic). These are made up of reconstituted human skin derived from donated, unwanted skin from cosmetic surgery. The models are used to test the likely irritancy of chemicals and cosmetics to the skin. One model has recently been shown to be more effective than the original rabbit Draize skin irritation test which it replaces.
These are computer programs which can predict the toxicity of new chemicals or drugs based on their similarity to more established compounds.
Innovative technology can enable researchers to safely use human volunteers in studies instead of animals, typically non-human primates. For example, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines generate detailed pictures of the brain and, when used in conjunction with other techniques, can identify where in the brain specific activities are generated such as emotion, thought and sight. Microdosing is a technique enabled by Accelerated Mass Spectrometry which measures minuscule amounts of drugs in human blood and urine. The technique can now be safely used to trace how the human body deals with new drug compounds, an important part of drug development that normally uses non-human primates.
Studying illnesses in human populations to understand the roles of genes, lifestyle, diet and occupation, has had a tremendous impact on saving lives, especially from cancer and heart disease.
The toxic potential of substances can sometimes be detected using relatively simple chemistry based methods and not requiring human cells. For example, the techniques that now test whether shellfish have dangerous toxins in them are based on chromatography methods. They replace extremely cruel tests in which the shellfish mixture was injected into the abdomens of mice. The number of mice who died within a few hours was the crude result used to decide if the shellfish were contaminated. An alternative for testing whether a cosmetic will cause a skin allergy is based on whether it reacts to proteins found in human skin. It is hoped this will soon replace the test using mice who have the substance painted onto their ears and killed three days later.
European law (EU Directive 2010/63/EC) clearly states that “wherever possible, a scientifically satisfactory method or testing strategy, not entailing the use of live animals, shall be used instead of a procedure.” It also states that EU governments should promote non-animal alternatives.
The legal obligation to use non-animal alternatives relies on those alternatives being officially seen to be available, and that in itself is a long and complex process. Once a non-animal method has been developed, it is then required to go through a formal validation process to demonstrate that the method is reliable and works. This validation usually includes further development, trials and assessment, all of which can take many years, particularly if funding is tight (which it invariably is for non-animal research).
In addition, even though EU legislation dictates that animals must not be used when alternative methods are available, in practice enforcement of this is very weak and punishments for researchers who disobey the law are usually minimal. The BUAV has had to take the UK Government to court, and threaten to do so on other occasions, because it was misapplying the law relating to alternatives. The BUAV also regularly comes across published research papers where animal experiments have been performed in areas such as fundamental (curiosity driven) research, despite the fact that there were very obvious and more appropriate non-animal methods of research that could have been used instead.
Unfortunately, in many other countries, such as Japan or the USA, there is no legislative requirement obliging researchers to use alternatives. So in those countries there is absolutely nothing stopping researchers from continuing to conduct cruel animal experiments even if a non-animal replacement is widely available.