“A few years back all the animals went away.”

animal-testing-lab-rats

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That is the opening line to Neil Gaiman’s story “Babycakes”. His story discusses, in brief, the consequences of using all the animals for testing, food, and decorations, until there are none left; and the drastic steps taken to replace them with another species: humans. Hopefully, with new approaches to animal testing being developed, it won’t come to that.

Recently, The European Commission revealed information on a new research program that will develop a modern approach to repeat-dose toxicity testing. Due to conflicting legislative demands for more thorough safety testing of chemicals on a lesser number of animals, the commission felt pressured into reaching these goals.

Last week, the program was first presented in Rome, at the World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences. This $36 million (€ 25 million) program was said to have “faster, cheaper and more reliable alternative methods” which will “contribute to increased safety while reducing the use of animals”. Scientists at the Congress agreed that steps must be taken to minimize the unnecessary use of animals. This may include the abandonment of unreliable tests such as the mouse cancer test and the two-generation test.

The cosmetic industry, however, is troubled by a couple previous pieces of European legislation. In 2003, an amendment was made to the 1976 cosmetics directive, which intends to do away with all cosmetic animal tests by 2013. This also applies to imports that are marketed in Europe. The 2006 REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical Substances) directive, on the other hand, requires the testing of marketed chemicals, to a point that many deem unnecessary.

cosmetic-industry

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For the first time ever, the cosmetic industry will be matching the commission’s funds through Colipa – the consortium of Europe’s cosmetics, toiletry and perfumery industries, based in Brussels. Unfortunately, the new program is not expected to be anything more than a small start, rather than the major effort that is needed to create reliable tests with little to no animal use.

Approximately one million animals are used per year in the European toxicology tests. The most well known types of these tests are the Draize test and the LD50. The Draize test involves putting substances either in the animal’s eyes or on their skin, and then observing them for signs such as blindness, ulcerations, hemorrhaging, or worse. LD50, or Lethal Dose 50%, involves repeatedly giving doses of a chemical to a group of animals to determine how much of an overdose is required kill at least half of them.

In order to proceed with the new program, The European Commission is looking to start projects in areas not typically used in toxicology. These include systems biology, computational modeling, and also the development of cellular devices that will stimulate organs like the heart or lungs. Each specialized area will have its own group of researchers so the money can be focused on a minimum number of labs. Jürgen Hescheler, a Stem-cell researcher from the University of Cologne in Germany intends to apply for funding. He says, “the program puts toxicology on a new basis and brings it into the right species: the human”.

tox21-genome

Image source: Maggie Bartlett, NHGRI

The United States is also planning to start a similar program, called the Tox21 program. Initiated by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. program also hopes to minimize animal use in the toxicology tests by increasing their predictive values.

Animal testing and experimentation has not always proved to be useful or beneficial to the human species. Over the years, there have been numerous accounts of mismatched and even fatal results, due to the fact that animal and human toxicity levels are not one in the same. Fluoride, for example, while used to prevent cavities, was initially withheld because it caused cancer in rats. Mitoxantrone, a treatment for cancer, produced heart failure on humans; even though it was extensively tested on dogs and never caused heart failure in them. It has also delayed the development of vaccines, devices and surgical procedures, simply because some human conditions could not be reproduced in the animals being tested.

While minimizing the number of animals used in toxicology testing is a good start, I can’t help but wonder when other forms of testing and experimentation will follow suit. Otherwise, what Neil Gaiman wrote in his story “Babycakes” might come to pass some day after all. At the very least, I am sure he is right about one thing:

“We’ll figure something out.”

The question is, when? And will we before it is too late?

Additional Resources:
50 Disasters of Animal Testing