Dr Laura WatersDr Laura Waters in her lab at Huddersfield University in the UK.
In the EU, as of March this year, animal testing is now banned in the development of cosmetics and similar products but it is not illegal in the pharmaceutical industry, on the contrary, it is mandatory. This is because all new drugs must be tested on animals before they are given to healthy volunteers in the first stage of clinical trials.
Most people would argue that taking a drug that has never been tested on any mammal is too risky and they feel they need the reassurance that animal testing provides. By initially administering a drug to an animal, such as a dog, it is felt that the first human volunteers to take the new drug are guaranteed some level of certainty as it has already been proven acceptable in animals. So, should we continue to undertake animal testing for new drugs or would it be just as successful to predict drug behaviour in humans using alternative methods?
Research is currently underway to remove the need for animals in the development process and a variety of new techniques are being developed. To be a successful replacement for using animals any new method would have to replicate the human biological response as closely as possible or be deemed a suitable predictive method. The array of alternatives is continually growing with three major areas of interest; chemical mimics, biological systems and computer software simulations.
Despite how many alternatives are proposed it is unlikely that a situation will ever arise whereby animal testing will be removed in its entirety which I think is a shame. This is partly because animal testing has become so established as part of the drug development process and partly that society is unlikely to accept new medicines unless they have been researched using animal studies, prior to their market release. This faith in animal testing can be sometimes misled, for example in 2006 a clinical trial went catastrophically wrong when six previously healthy human volunteers took a new drug called TGN1412 and ended up in intensive care.
Before trials commenced, animal studies were undertaken with no adverse effects observed at levels five hundred times higher than those given to the six volunteers. This unfortunate incident shows that animal testing does not always manage to predict unwanted side effects of new drugs before the first studies are conducted in humans. The biological reactions and interactions that occur when a person takes a drug are so incredibly complicated that it is hard to mimic the exact scenario even with the use of animals as models. In an ideal world there would be no need to use animals at all and hopefully more money and scientific research will be focused on developing suitable alternatives to make this animal-free drug development dream a reality in the near future.
About the author: Laura has an active research group investigating phenomena at the interface of chemistry and pharmaceutics, developing analytical techniques, characterising chemical interactions and enhancing formulations, all funded through external sources. Her work in the area of public engagement has led to several recent public lectures and media presentations including the JPAG Science Award for her research and the British Science Association Darwin Award for public engagement.