When Dr Carol Treasure talks about non-animal testing, she doesn’t use the word ‘alternative’. She doesn’t like the negative connotations it can have, as though alternatives to animal tests are somehow second best. The founder and CEO of UK-based animal-free testing laboratory XCellR8 says it’s quite the opposite - the science that has been developed over the last few decades is far better.
“At XCellR8 we’re using human skin cells - these are cells that have been donated through ethical sources. We also use reconstructed human skin and eye models,” she explains at a Lush Showcase 2018 Think Tank.
When Carol first started working in the field of non-animal testing work, it was considered by many to be bad science. Now, she says, this area of work means human physiology can be modelled much more accurately.
XCellR8 is one of the many past winners of the Lush Prize, which is on a mission to eradicate safety testing on animals. But since the annual Prize was launched in 2012, just how close are we to seeing an end to animal testing?
Regulations around the world
Animal testing requirements vary across the world, which comes with its own set of problems according to Emily McIvor, science policy advisor for PETA UK.
“Across the world, the lack of concordance between the different regulations means that you might get companies testing in a country where supposedly animal testing has been banned, for another market, and not disclosing that the ingredient is a cosmetic ingredient,” Emily told the audience at the Think Tank.
“They might test it as if it’s a household product or another type of product. So the regulations have to be as tight as we can possibly make them.”
When it comes to creating new legislation, Emily adds: “The most convincing argument is: there are companies doing this now, and they are successful and their products are safe, and this is how it can be done.”
In India and Israel, animal testing of cosmetics is banned. In the EU, no finished cosmetics products can be tested on animals, no cosmetics ingredients can be tested on animals, and no animal-tested cosmetics products may be marketed or sold anywhere in Europe, wherever those products have been tested in the world. However, this is not the end of the story.
A complex piece of legislation means animal lives are still under threat. The European Chemical Agency’s REACH legislation introduced increased safety testing for large quantities of chemical ingredients either manufactured or imported into the EU zone. This can involve animal testing, when other tests are not available.
And in China, since it is a legal requirement for cosmetics products to be tested in the country by Chinese regulators, this means that companies selling in China risk their products being tested on animals, whether or not they have already been tested for safety elsewhere in the world.
Elizabeth Baker, pharmaceutical policy program director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, explains that she has been working hard on legislation in California, called the Cruelty Free Cosmetics Act.
“In California, you have the State Senate and the State Assembly, and then to become a law the Bill needs to be signed by the Governor. We have made it through the Assembly and through the Senate,” she says.
But paving the way for change isn’t easy. Elizabeth says that another factor holding back progress is institutional resistance, where companies have been working in the same way for years and are reluctant to adapt. A lack of training also means people don’t always know how to use new technology.
Paving the way for a future where animals are not found in laboratories, lobbyists are pushing for regulatory changes, campaigners are raising public awareness, and scientists are creating new tests.
One of those new developments is organ-on-a-chip technology. These microchips contain human cells, and behave like human organs, meaning they can be used to test chemicals for human safety. Importantly, this technology can be used to see how a particular chemical affects the whole human body, and not just one organ in isolation.
A new blinking eye-on-a-chip technology means that eye irritation tests could soon be carried out without the use of animals. The breakthrough comes from the winner of the Lush Prize 2018 Science Prize, Korean-American Professor Dan Dongeun Huh from BIOLines Research Group at the University of Pennsylvania.
One of the main reasons for starting the project was to create an alternative to the controversial Draize test, where live rabbits are restrained and subjected to repeated eye irritation tests, before they are eventually killed.
“Given the limited capacity of laboratory animals to simulate human physiology, the current dominance of animal experimentation in life science research raises significant scientific, ethical, and economic concerns,” Dan says.
The team behind the breakthrough has also developed a smoking lung-on-a-chip, placenta-on-a-chip, and cancer immunotherapy-on-a-chip - living blood vessels that can be studied to see how cancer cells interact with parts of the immune system.
The fight to replace animal testing is not just restricted to cosmetics. Earlier in 2018, scientists at Imperial College London became the first in the world to use organ-on-a-chip technology to test the effect of infectious diseases on human organs.
At the Lush Showcase think tank, Dr Carol Treasure said: “Cosmetics have taken the lead, but there’s no reason that the pharmaceutical industry can’t start adopting these methods as well.”
Worth the fight
The ethical implications of testing on animals are well documented; Humane Society International outlines the tests currently carried out on animals, and what those animals endure. But beyond this, is the question of scientific accuracy. How effective are animal tests for products being used by humans?
“I would argue there’s an ethical issue here for humans as well,” Elizabeth Baker says, discussing the issues with medicines failing in humans, when they have passed the animal testing stage.
“Imagine the innovation, imagine where we could be in medicine, in cosmetic testing, in evaluation of chemicals, if a fraction of that money were invested in human-based research - lab-based or sophisticated computer models.”
PETA’s Emily McIvor agrees. She says that new methods are more relevant to human beings. And she believes the end is finally in sight for animal testing.
“The end is coming about because of advances in science, but there are also huge advances being made in the regulatory arena where countries are under pressure from the public, from consumers, from companies like Lush, to end animal testing,” she says.
“The science and the public outreach really are going hand-in-hand, and behind that sit regulations. And if we campaign hard enough, and we campaign in enough places, regulations will change.”
One thing that the Lush Prize winners who were speaking at the Think Tank didn’t agree on, was how far Universities have come. While Emily feels there has been a political shift, where many young biomedical researchers feel proud to say they don’t test on animals, Carol has had mixed experiences.
“We get a lot of students still writing in on a regular basis saying, ‘I want a career in animal-free testing, but my university is still expecting me to do this.’ I know there are shifts, but if you study pharmacology you’re using animal components; physiology, a lot of those key life sciences are still using the old methods,” she says.
Carol believes that there is still work to be done between industry and universities, so that in vitro methods (sometimes called test tube experiments) are taught as part of the standard curriculum, and that biases towards animal tests are eradicated.
Whether or not young researchers are completely free to carve out careers without animal tests, the panel did all agree when Elizabeth Baker stated that things are moving faster now than they ever have before. This understanding is at the heart of the Lush Prize team’s decision to have a ‘Young Researcher’ prize category covering three geographic areas, so that young scientists across the world can continue their work in non-animal research.
The battle against animal testing is far from won, but everything is moving rapidly in the right direction, thanks to a combination of scientific breakthroughs, training, public awareness-raising, lobbying, and those scientists who have made and are making the commitment to work in animal-free laboratories.
Head to Lush Player to watch the Fighting Animal Testing with the Lush Prize think tank.