1. Towards research without animals?

In June 2015, the European Commission rejected a citizens’ initiative that had collected nearly 1.2 million signatures to ban animal testing. Their reasons for calling for a ban on animal testing are based on ethics and questionable reliability. The Commission, however, believes that “a complete ban on animal research in the EU would be premature”, and cited a directive from 2010 that establishes stricter regulation of the use of animals (the directive refers to mammals, as flies and fish aren’t considered in vivo organisms). Spanish scientists have curbed the use of animals in research, down from 1.4 millions in 2009 to 920,000 in 2013, in part as a result of the new laws.

Elisabet Berggren, head of toxicology at the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection, believes “it may be possible to substitute in vitro testing for animals in pre-clinical trials. But to do so we have to think and plan experiments better.” Berggren also mentioned two recommendations from the European Commission: the need to share more data and to improve development of alternative methods. One of the initiatives working towards the latter is the SEURAT-1 project, created as a result of the ban on using any type of research animal for cosmetics, which aims to develop methods that can also be applied in other areas.

Nevertheless, other experts aren’t so optimistic, Fátima Bosch, director of the Autonomous University of Barcelona Center for Animal Biotechnology and Gene Therapy, says, “Some of these alternative methods could possibly work to assess drug toxicity, but not efficacy. That requires in vivo studies.”

This opinion is shared by Miquel Borràs, professor of toxicology at the University of Barcelona. “Alternative methods make all the sense in the world in the early stages of drug development but not later on. And this isn't just a whim, animal studies are needed to test a therapy.”

The industry itself is interested in moving beyond animal testing, because it tends to take longer and be more expensive. Therefore, to limit these inconveniences, they are beginning to use mice modified to develop tumors much more quickly, for example. But Borrás wonders, “What is the scientific relevance of these models? When we say in vivo research is imprecise, that is true (two thirds of all drugs approved in animals end up failing). But, careful, at least for now ex vivo is much more imprecise,” he warns.