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Alternatives to Animal Testing

Test Tubes Pic©Institute for In Vitro Sciences

During a government meeting about funding for research, former U.S. National Institutes of Health director Dr. Elias Zerhouni admitted that experimenting on animals to help humans has been a major failure. He told his colleagues:

“We have moved away from studying human disease in humans. … We all drank the Kool-Aid on that one, me included. … The problem is that [animal testing] hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem. … We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.” —Dr. Elias Zerhouni

Today—because experiments on animals are cruel, expensive, and generally inapplicable to humans—the world’s most forward-thinking scientists have moved on to develop and use methods for studying diseases and testing products that replace animals and are actually relevant to human health. These modern methods include sophisticated tests using human cells and tissues (also known as in vitro methods), advanced computer-modeling techniques (often referred to as in silico models), and studies with human volunteers. These and other non-animal methods are not hindered by species differences that make applying animal test results to humans difficult or impossible, and they usually take less time and money to complete.

PETA and its affiliates fund the development of many of these non-animal methods, vigorously promote their use to governments and companies around the world, and publish research on their superiority to traditional animal tests.

Here are just a few examples of the range of state-of-the-art non-animal research methods available and their demonstrated benefits:

In Vitro Testing

  • Harvard’s Wyss Institute has created “organs-on-chips” that contain human cells grown in a state-of-the-art system to mimic the structure and function of human organs and organ systems. The chips can be used instead of animals in disease research, drug testing, and toxicity testing and have been shown to replicate human physiology, diseases, and drug responses more accurately than crude animal experiments do. Some companies, such as the HµRel Corporation, have already turned these chips into products that other researchers can use in place of animals.
  • A variety of cell-based tests and tissue models can be used to assess the safety of drugs, chemicals, cosmetics, and consumer products. CeeTox (bought by Cyprotex) developed a method to assess the potential of a substance to cause a skin allergy in humans that incorporates MatTek’s EpiDermTM Tissue Model—a 3-dimensional, human cell–derived skin model that replicates key traits of normal human skin. It replaces the use of guinea pigs or mice, who would have been injected with a substance or had it applied to their shaved skin to determine an allergic response. MatTek’s EpiDerm™ is also being used to replace rabbits in painful, prolonged experiments that have traditionally been used to evaluate chemicals for their ability to  corrode or irritate the skin.
  • Researchers at the European Union Reference Library for alternatives to animal testing developed five different tests that use human blood cells to detect contaminants in drugs that cause a potentially dangerous fever response when they enter the body. The non-animal methods replace the crude use of rabbits in this painful procedure.

Computer (in silico) Modeling

  • Researchers have developed a wide range of sophisticated computer models that simulate human biology and the progression of developing diseases. Studies show that these models can accurately predict the ways that new drugs will react in the human body and replace the use of animals in exploratory research and many standard drug tests.
  • Quantitative structure-activity relationships (QSARs) are computer-based techniques that can replace animal tests by making sophisticated estimates of a substance’s likelihood of being hazardous, based on its similarity to existing substances and our knowledge of human biology. Companies and governments are increasingly using QSAR tools to avoid animal testing of chemicals, and PETA actively promotes and funds their use internationally.

Research With Human Volunteers

  • A method called “microdosing” can provide vital information on the safety of an experimental drug and how it is metabolized in humans prior to large-scale human trials. Volunteers are given an extremely small one-time drug dose, and sophisticated imaging techniques are used to monitor how the drug behaves in the body. Microdosing can replace certain tests on animals and help screen out drug compounds that won’t work in humans so that they won’t needlessly advance to government-required animal testing.
  • Advanced brain imaging and recording techniques—such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)—with human volunteers can be used to replace archaic experiments in which rats, cats, and monkeys have their brains damaged. These modern techniques allow the human brain to be safely studied down to the level of a single neuron (as in the case of intracranial electroencephalography), and researchers can even temporarily and reversibly induce brain disorders using transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Human-Patient Simulators

  • Strikingly life-like computerized human-patient simulators that breathe, bleed, convulse, talk, and even “die” have been shown to teach students physiology and pharmacology better than crude exercises that involve cutting up animals. The most high-tech simulators mimic illnesses and injuries and give the appropriate biological response to medical interventions and injections of medications. Ninety-seven percent of medical schools across the U.S. have completely replaced the use of animal laboratories in medical training with simulators like this, as well as virtual-reality systems, computer simulators, and supervised clinical experience.
  • For more advanced medical training, systems like TraumaMan—which replicates a breathing, bleeding human torso and has realistic layers of skin and tissue, ribs, and internal organs—are widely used to teach emergency surgical procedures and have been shown in numerous studies to impart lifesaving skills better than courses that require students to cut into live pigs, goats, or dogs.

Visit the PETA International Science Consortium website for more information on the global work of PETA and its affiliates to promote the development and use of modern non-animal research and testing methods. A list of alternative toxicity-testing methods approved by regulators can be found here, and a list of organizations involved in the development of non-animal methods can be found here.

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