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Phasing out animal testing: a historic decision by the European Parliament

Phasing out animal testing: a historic decision by the European Parliament

On 16 September, the European Parliament voted in favour of speeding up the process of phasing out animal testing in research. We asked Prof. Alicja Józkowicz from the JU Department of Medical Biotechnology, a member of the National Ethical Committee for Animal Testing, to comment on this momentous event.



The resolution is the aftermath of a debate that took place during the July plenary session. The members of the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of the resolution, which was widely reported on by the media – unsurprisingly, as the subject is important and interesting to the public. The resolution points to the necessity of ensuring a constant increase of competencies amongst researchers and stresses the importance of higher education institutions as sources of knowledge about alternative experimental methods that could potentially replace animal testing. Naturally, the Jagiellonian University is fully committed to taking these actions.

The resolution doesn’t really introduce any new ideas. It’s directly related to the Directive 2010/63/EU ‘on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes’. The directive states that it’s necessary to move away from using animals as test subjects as quickly as it’s feasible. This means that if it’s possible to perform an experiment without the participation of an animal, then it’s forbidden to do so otherwise. According to the directive, researchers that conduct animal testing need to meet a number of requirements and attend regular training sessions. These rules apply across the European Union, including Poland. The rule of ‘3 Rs’ – Replacement, Reduction, Refinement – dictates that the use of animals in research projects should be as limited as possible and testing itself shouldn’t be invasive and bothersome. Applications for laboratory animals are strictly controlled and available for public access. However, the analysis of statistical data shows that the number of animals used in experiments hasn’t meaningfully decreased in the recent years; hence, the resolution proposes speeding up the process of implementing the directive’s rulings. The proposed solutions include more effective support for alternative research methods and preferential financial treatment for projects that don’t use animal testing.

The public discourse regarding this issue is often oversimplified, presenting animal rights activists and researchers involved in animal testing as opposing sides in a conflict. In reality, however, such dichotomy doesn’t exist, or at the very least is far less pronounced. Striving for limited animal testing in research and humane treatment of animals is a common goal for the majority of scientific community. Providing animals with suitable living conditions is one of the pillars of the scientific method, not only for ethical reasons, but also because mistreating animals could lead to unreliable results.

Eliminating suffering and limiting stress in laboratory animals is important from the scientific and ethical point of view, but there's no escaping from putting them to death: without it, researchers won't be able to study their cells and tissues. We can’t avoid killing laboratory animals, but we can do everything we can to increase their quality of life and to make it as painless as possible. Fortunately, we have made tremendous progress in this area in the last several decades, chiefly due to social control and legislation.

Restricting animal testing mustn’t be equated to abandoning it altogether; this important detail has also made its way into the resolution. The number of animals used in laboratories is still relatively high because in many cases alternative methods haven’t been found yet. In some branches of science, it’s probably never going be possible to completely phase out animal testing. The resolution encourages a quicker introduction of the principles found in the Directive 2010/63/EU, but we need a clear-cut plan with specific dates and ideas. Perceiving the issue from purely statistical point of view doesn’t seem productive, unless we decide to arbitrarily limit certain types of biomedical research in Europe.

One of the most common misunderstandings when it comes to animal testing is grouping scientific research together with, for instance, determining whether a product is safe to introduce to the market, which is often required by law. These are completely different activities. The most frequently cited example, animal testing in the cosmetic industry, has very little to do with scientific research. Toxic, irritating or mutagenic properties of a chemical can be quite easily determined with the use of alternative methods. It’s clear that in these cases the stipulations of the resolution may be introduced rather rapidly. Harmonisation of law is also an important aspect here, as tests carried out in one country can’t be repeated in another.

Nevertheless, when it comes to scientific research, particularly those aspects that are related to the functioning of an organism as a whole, the possibility of completely phasing out animal testing is all but impossible. Most procedures are fairly non-intrusive, but there are some invasive ones. About 80% of them is carried out on mice, but fish are becoming more and more common (zebrafish in particular). Research projects are often conducted on groups of 6–8 mice. Transgenic mice are crucial to research efforts, as the ability to ‘turn on’ (or ‘turn off)’ a selected gene in a particular type of cells during a particular period of time allows scientists to better understand the role of that gene or mark the lineage of a cell and study its development, e.g. in the aging process. In many cases, animals only provide cells for ex-vivo analyses and are not subjected to any invasive procedures (though they may be euthanized if it’s necessary). This approach, coupled with rapidly developing high-throughput analytical methods, allows for collecting a vast amount of data that can be further studied by different research teams. A good example of such strategy is the work of the Tabula Muris consortium, where an analysis of data collected from 8 mice allowed for an assessment of gene expression profile in more than 54,000 cells collected from 20 types of tissue. A veritable fount of knowledge, this data will be used by researchers around the world for many years to come. It’s worth emphasising that this type of research is related to the most basic biological processes. Without it, there would be no real advances in medicine. The truth is, we owe most drugs and therapeutic methods to animal testing.

Scientists are aware that animal testing more often than not leads to only partial conclusions. In reality, it’s almost always only a small part of the actual research project. Most of scientists’ attention is focused on cells and tissues cultured in-vitro. However, older types of in-vitro cultures are very simplistic and can only provide answers for less complex questions, failing to clarify issues such as intercellular interactions. Here, newer, more refined techniques could be employed. Two of the most promising are organoids (simplified, small versions of organs acquired from stem cells that can to some extent self-organise and interact with other cells) and organs-on-a-chip (systems of cell cultures that simulate the typical conditions and environment for a particular tissue). The ability to use human cells, or even cells of a specific patient, is a great advantage of these methods. These models go hand-in-hand with pre-clinical trials, reducing the need for animal testing. They are currently being developed in many laboratories, including those at the Jagiellonian University.

The key to successful research lies in using varied, complimentary methods and choosing a model that provides the most reliable data. In some cases, these can be cell cultures or organoids.  Nevertheless, in others, there is simply no way of substituting the living organism of an animal. Pushing legislation that bans animal testing in its entirety would exclude European researchers from working on many crucial issues. It seems that the most reasonable thing to do would be not to arbitrarily focus on ‘absolute and sustained reductions in the number of animals used across the EU for scientific purposes’, but rather aim to achieve the highest quality of life for laboratory animals and the most reliable research results.

Original text: www.nauka.uj.edu.pl

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