Animal testing debate

Alternative solutions to animal testing debated at Science Fest

Science Fest returned for its third year last week and continues until Thursday. The event, which is a One North East funded project, promises to ‘stimulate all of the senses and help people connect with science in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.’  This is achieved through a series of events, installations, performances, lectures and debates that take place across Newcastle. Previous year’s spectacles have included the UK Premier of ArcAttack and the popular Maker’s Faire. Although organisers admit they have had a significant reduction to their operational budget this year, there is still plenty going on for all ages.

At the Centre for Life, you can meet Bjorn the robotic polar bear, learn about Greek Mythology in the Planetarium and see a host of free lectures on a range of challenging scientific subjects. If you’re into animals, you can go and hold some lizards, snakes, spiders and more at the Discovery Museum. Other activities include a guided tour through Newcastle, to find out about some famous Geordie inventions including Lucozade and Domestos.

This year, I decided to check out an award winning lecture at The Centre for Life by Dr. Laura Waters, a pharmaceutical scientist from the University of Huddersfield. In 2011 Dr. Waters won the British Science Association Darwin Award for public engagement for her lecture on the controversial subject of animal testing in pharmaceuticals industry. In the UK, animal testing for pharmaceuticals is mandatory but banned for cosmetics. In an engaging one hour lecture, Dr. Waters discussed some of the debates around animal testing and got you to think about some of the alternatives available for predicting drug behaviour in humans.

Although Dr. Waters herself hopes that one day animal testing will be optional rather than mandatory, her lecture did not in any way imply that animal testing wasn’t right, or that scientists that use animals have not contributed greatly to the research on drugs affects. As our scientific knowledge evolves, however, more and more highly sophisticated alternatives to animal testing are becoming available. The objective of Laura’s lecture was to make you aware that they exist. Alternatives include using only the cells or tissues of animals; silico methods where animal’s reactions to drugs are simulated through a computer program or actually using humans, which is an emerging trend in the development of drugs to combat skin cancer.

As it stands, animal testing is still a hugely complex area, especially with regards to the legislation controlling the use of animals in pharmaceutical tests around the world. In 2010 the EU launched a new directive that would impose increased controls on animal testing, in member its states. The legislation proposes a general ban on the use of chimpanzees and gorillas, in scientific tests. The ban was not extended however, to other primates. Once affective, Europe will have the tightest controls on animal experimentation in the world. It is still compulsory, however, for one rodent and one non-rodent (usually a dog) to be tested during drug development.

One of the questions put forward in the lecture was, how effective is animal testing for predicting the behaviour of drugs in animals? The answer was actually quite surprising. Animal tests are usually less than 50% correct and the results are always different, depending on the species of animal.  This debate goes back to the Thalidomide tragedy in 1960’s when the pregnancy drug was found to cause serious defects to newly born human babies, despite causing no side effects in animals. More recently, six people who took part in a clinical trial for the immunomodulatory drug TGN1412, ended up in intensive care. Over 90% of new drugs fail in clinical trials after passing safely tests in animals. Despite this, Dr. Walker pointed out that any alternative testing solution must be as accurate as, or more accurate than animal testing, before it can be approved for use.

The use of alternative solutions is gaining momentum however. Asterand, a global supplier of research services to the pharmaceutical industry, now only uses human tissue for testing and nineteen of the top twenty pharmaceutical firms regularly use bespoke animal simulation software for drug trials. In 2011 pharma giant Astra Zeneca confirmed that it had closed one of its dog facilities. Dr. Walker was keen to emphasise however that more funding is still needed to discover and also perfect the use of alternative solutions. There are currently far more scientists and companies wanting to reduce animal testing than there is funding to help facilitate its decline.

The other issue is convincing people of its benefits. At the end of the lecture Dr. Walker asked the audience ‘Would you take a drug that hadn’t been tested on animals?’ Few hands were raised.