We don’t want to make mice better but people

The transition away from animal testing is for the time being a predominantly silent revolution, but alternatives based on human tissues and mini-organs offer the prospect of acceleration. “This is not only much more relevant for patients,” says Christine Mummery from the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), “But it is also faster and cheaper in the end”.

It’s 2019, which means the three Rs will be 60 years old this year. The concept of the Rs (Reduce, Refine, Replace) was introduced in 1959 by the British Russel & Birch. The three Rs still form the basis of the current legislation and there are calls for a thorough review of this legislation.

For more information on the implementation of the 3Rs and specifically on the status of replacement we recommend watching Michael Balls’ Keynote Talk: ‘On the Replacement of Animal Testing: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow’ keynote recorded by CAAT on November 22, 2019 at the Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. 

Interview with Christine Mummery after the Pioneer-2-Policmaker conference

By no means all attendees at the Pioneer-2-Policymaker conference from 27-29 November in Utrecht are convinced of the need to amend the law. What does become clear, however, is that the Netherlands will have to work hard to achieve its declared ambition of being an international ‘forerunner’ in 2025. Whereas the Netherlands was still on course to be ‘naturally’ animal-free by 2065 until 2005, there has been considerably less reduction between then and now. In recent years, the number of animals used in the Netherlands has even remained virtually stable.

Little insight into human disease processes

However, this week there is reason to expect that a considerable reduction is coming, Christine Mummery (LUMC) tells us in her keynote at the conference. “The new international ICH directive makes 300,000 to 400,000 animal tests unnecessary every year. Under the previous standard, drugs for pregnant women had to be tested on both (pregnant) rats and rabbits, but because the results are so similar, the requirement for double testing has been dropped.”

Mummery points out that this is a nice development, but above all that it is high time to do more with human-relevant material. “There is surprisingly little insight into human disease processes, almost all of our knowledge comes from animal experiments. This is a problem because clinical pictures between humans and animals can be very different.” It is therefore not surprising that the best-selling medicines often often fail to work in in the patients for whom they are intended.

Mummery sees the big breakthrough in the replacement of animal tests with tests on human tissues and organs. “This is not only much more relevant for patients, but it is also faster and cheaper in the end.” This last point makes attendees sit a little more upright in their seats. The development time of a medicine is typically more than ten years, by replacing compulsory stages of animal testing with tests on human material, this can be accelerated considerably.

Open science at European level

In the use of organoids, organs-on-a-chip and combinations of these, Mummery sees great opportunities to eventually mimic large parts of the human body and disease process. “This approach not only offers the opportunity to take a more focused look at how human tissue behaves, we can also do it in a patient-oriented way.”

This has advantages, especially given that some drugs do not work or can even be dangerous for a select group of patients. As more and more techniques are being developed to make a person’s stem cells from a variety of tissues – even from blood – Mummery believes that research into human material can really take off.

The Leiden professor sees these rapid developments as a great opportunity, but warns not to repeat old mistakes. “We really need to better attune what everyone is doing, and not duplicate things.” That is why Mummery is working hard on a consortium that wants to set up an overarching European research infrastructure.

“It must become a large virtual platform where we share all the techniques, experiences and results with each other. To succeed, all stakeholders, from researchers to legislators, regulatory bodies to industry, must come together in a major open science project. “And the data must be open access, even if a substance does not work, we must make it known.”

Source: Translation of the article written by Sicco de Knecht for Science Guide.