Tests using animals 'likely to be replaced': Scientists close to perfecting alternative checks on products

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The Independent Online
SCIENTISTS believe they are on the brink of perfecting tests that could make obsolete the more emotive laboratory tests on animals - such as dropping chemicals into rabbits' eyes.

Nine tests that use no animals are about to be undergo rigorous scientific examination in the first major international study of its kind. Nearly 40 laboratories in nine countries, including Britain, have just received the materials to run the checks. The aim of the pounds 1.2m study is to provide credible data that will make the case for alternative tests compelling.

Professor Michael Balls, a specialist on alternatives to using animals, said a key aim was to build up a scientific case strong enough to force politicians to change laws on tests of household products. He hopes legislators will allow one or more non-animal methods to replace the so-called Draize rabbit eye irritancy test. The Draize test, which checks whether products are irritants or corrosive, has been a central target for animal rights campaigners.

The start of the study has particular poignancy since today is World Day for Laboratory Animals. 'By this time next year there will be such political and public pressure to use a method that has been validated, that that pressure will be irresistible,' Professor Balls said.

'What we are doing may sound easy, but one of my main feelings about World Day for Laboratory Animals is that just wanting alternatives doesn't provide them. One reason I'm pleased to do this study is that it would be a disaster to introduce a non-animal method that doesn't work.' This would serve only to arm the critics of non-animals testing.

He has been working at Nottingham University, which is managing the validation study and will lead work on one of the nine alternative tests. He is head of a new centre in northern Italy set up to co-ordinate the European Community's role.

He said progress was fastest on finding alternatives for animal tests required before manufacturers could sell new products, such as household cleaners and toiletries. Identifying alternatives in medical research was proving more of a challenge.

There was unhappiness with existing tests, not just on the grounds of animal rights, but also on scientific grounds, Professor Balls said. Laboratory animals and people were very different, and the process of putting something into an animal then trying to trace the effects of the chemical was a costly and inexact science. 'The science of toxicology is moving towards the cellular level, rather than using the whole animal.'

This does not rule out the value of whole animal tests, but means that more and more work can be carried out using cell cultures. Manufacturers are also keen to move away from expensive and controversial animal tests, while fulfilling obligations to customers on product safety. This week, Glaxo set up its own laboratory at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield to find ways of testing drugs on human cell tissue.

Professor Chris Atterwill, whose chair in the university's biosciences division is sponsored by Glaxo, said current tests of drug candidates were 'quite a hit and miss process'. He said it was sometimes difficult to spot toxicity because direct extrapolations of animal test results to man were not always reliable. His group was working on tests using human cells taken from placentae to monitor the effect of drugs on the nervous system.

Professor Balls said: 'We have to see what is relevant, reliable and reproducible.' There were four main groups of alternative tests: 'Eye part' tests - using bits of eyes from rabbits, chickens and cattle slaughtered for food; cell culture tests; tests looking for blood vessel damage if chemicals were dropped on to the membrane inside hens' eggs through a tiny window cut in the shell and so-called physical, chemical tests which spotted chemical damage to protein, such as egg white.