Every year millions of animals are used in biomedical research experiments that not only cause unnecessary suffering for them, but don’t accurately predict results in humans and may cause us to miss cures that would actually work.
While some may say that we would have missed many treatments if animals hadn’t been used as test subjects, there have been just as many failures, if not more. According to the FDA, 92 percent of drugs that show promise in animals fail in clinical trials, making the continued use of animals unjustifiable not only on an ethical scale, but on a scientific one as well. Worse is that even some drugs that have shown promise in humans have ended up causing more harm than good.
Fortunately, many researchers have taken a hard look at the failures of using animal models and have focused their efforts on finding alternatives, which has led to a few recent breakthroughs that could help us move on to innovative and cutting-edge scientific methods that don’t involve harming other species in our search for health and cures. Just a few of many include:
Alan Faulkner-Jones, a bioengineering PhD student at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh is using 3D printing technology that could replace animals in drug tests within five years. Using a hacked MakerBot bio-printer, he has successfully demonstrated that human stem cells can be printed to create micro-tissues and micro-organs that can be used to test drugs – even personalized ones using cells from patients, according to Dezeen.
Creative Use of Collagen
Using a thin sheet of collagen to cultivate human corneal cells, Japanese researchers have created the equivalent of a human cornea, which is as effective as using an animal’s eye to detect toxic chemicals. Tests using the fabricated cornea match previous test results using animals with 90 percent accuracy. The other ten percent of the time they were even more accurate, reported Care2′s Piper Hoffman. This one’s big news for animals like rabbits who are used in sadistic Draize tests that involve putting chemicals and other harmful substances in their sensitive eyes.
Organs Chips that can mimic living cells and tissues that accurately model the structure and function of human organs including the lung, liver, brain, guts and heart were big news last year and a welcome advance for patients waiting for cures and those who want to see the end of animals in research and new models for human diseases.
While they were already being used in some areas, researchers are working on how to combine multiple chips to emulate the entire human body, in addition to designing software that can control and analyze different functions. Calls are being made by the NIH and DARPA to develop organ networks. While only a handful of labs have made a system with more than one organ, success could be reached in a basic form by 2017, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, they’re being used in new and innovative ways.
- Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University are studying “lung on a chip” that can mimic disease processes, such as fluid on the lungs, bacterial infections and pulmonary edema, and be used to test new drugs. They also received funding to use organ chips to test the human response to radiation and evaluate drugs designed to treat the side effects.
- Researchers at Vanderbilt University began working on a ‘microbrain reactor,’ which is intended to provide new insights into how the brain receives, alters and is affected by drugs. Researchers there plan on studying the biology of stroke and what role the brain plays in obesity by using tissue samples from affected patients.
- In collaboration with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, Wake Forest, Harvard and the University of Michigan, the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center’s in vitro research team is studying organ chips using adult stem cells that can grow into other organs. They believe this will allow them to test the effect of chemical warfare agents, toxins and drugs faster and more accurately and they hope they will eliminate the need to use animals within a few years.
- Researchers at the University of Central Florida’s NanoScience Technology Center have developed a neuromuscular junction mimic using human neurons, which will let them monitor muscular function and its response to different treatments and pharmaceuticals without testing on either humans or animals. According to the Central Florida Future, their work could benefit people with Lou Gehrig’s disease, spinal muscle atrophy and spinal cord injuries.
Photo credit: Thinkstock