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Alternatives to animal testing

Human health and animal welfare both stand to gain from the development of new in vitro toxicology tests, based on cultured cells and advanced technology.

Background

Animals are still used abundantly to assess the efficacy and safety of cosmetics, medicines, food additives,...
Human health and animal welfare both stand to gain from the development of new in vitro toxicology tests, based on cultured cells and advanced technology.

Background

Animals are still used abundantly to assess the efficacy and safety of cosmetics, medicines, food additives, vaccines and chemicals. In addition to raising public concern for animal welfare, animal testing is costly, time-consuming, and not always predictive of human responses. The EU is committed to promoting methods that replace, reduce, or refine animal testing. Directive 86/609/EEC bans the use of an animal test when an equally satisfactory alternative test is "reasonably and practicably" available. Yet few such tests have been developed, validated, accepted by regulators, and adopted. The role of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods, is to co-ordinate the development, validation and acceptance of alternative tests for specific purposes. EVCAM is part of the Institute of Health & Consumer Protection at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre.

Description, impact and results

At first, the emphasis was on replacing existing methods with in vitro testing. A number of replacement tests, validated by ECVAM and its partners or by other agencies, are now in use or are being discussed at European and OECD levels. Today, the accent is on new, advanced, human-based tests reflecting current knowledge of mechanisms. ECVAM is developing methods to see how substances affect the vital organs (liver, kidneys), or body systems (the immune and nervous systems), or cause cancer. The tests are integrated into multiple-approach strategies which include computer modelling.

ECVAM has teams specialised in all major areas of toxicology. To study long-term effects of substances at low doses, novel approaches are being developed where cells can be maintained for months without subculturing. Another new tool, a panel of genetically engineered neuronal cell lines, is currently being patented. Each cell line contains a transgene that, when expressed, makes the cells particularly vulnerable or resistant to apoptosis, a type of programmed cell death. Expression of the transgene can be turned on and off and even fine-tuned. The cells are used to identify compounds which, even at very low concentration, accelerate or inhibit apoptosis, and may improve our understanding of diseases such as Alzheimer's, in which apoptosis plays an important part. In embryotoxic compound identification tests, ECVAM exploits the ability of embryonic stem cells to differentiate in vitro into various tissues (e.g. beating heart tissue). Such tests are being made more sensitive by genetic engineering of permanent cell lines.

These are just some examples of the many and varied studies being carried out at ECVAM.

Working partnerships

ECVAM's co-ordinating role involves many partners worldwide: in animal welfare, academia, the chemical, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industries, governmental departments and international organisations. In addition to co-ordinating multi-laboratory prevalidation and validation studies, ECVAM gives advice on alternative tests and animal welfare issues, organises workshops and task forces, runs SIS - an information service providing factual, evaluated information on tests and their validation/acceptance status - and has created Olive(c)JRC, an information management system that can help laboratories to set up and operate a `Good Laboratory Practice' facility for alternative tests. In September 1999, the Centre was the principal organiser of the 3rd World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences, held in Bologna, Italy.


Source: European Commission, DG XIII/D.4 - Information and dissemination of scientific and technical knowledge

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