In today’s Finshots, we discuss clinical drug trials on animals and the possibility of doing away with the practice.

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The Story

When we pop a pill, we only care about how quickly the drug will work. Maybe we think about the possible side effects. That’s it. But do we stop to think about the animals that were subjected to drug trials before the pill finally landed up at our local pharmacy? Probably not.

But last week, the Director of CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology sounded the alarm. He was concerned about the high number of animals used to bring a drug to the market. I mean imagine, over 500,000 animals are used every year just to test if a drug can impact the heart adversely. So he wants the pharma industry to stop the practice. And he wants them to embrace alternatives.

But it’s not going to be easy.

You see, this obsession with animal testing began way back in 1937. A chemist in the US had created a liquid version of the drug sulfanilamide. And unfortunately, it led to the death of over 100 people. The creation had turned out to be toxic. So the US government stepped in and passed a law that mandated animal testing for every new drug. Basically, this meant that every compound must first be tested on animals before it can be tested on humans. The animal tests would help us weed out drugs that could potentially be toxic. And over the years, we’ve just gone with this idea that since mice and rats share a lot of the same genes as us, what works on them should consequently work on us too.

But it looks like science reveals another story. For instance, here’s something from a research paper published in 2019:

An analysis of 2,366 drugs concluded that “results from tests on animals (specifically rat, mouse and rabbit models) are highly inconsistent predictors of toxic responses in humans, and are little better than what would result merely by chance—or tossing a coin—in providing a basis to decide whether a compound should proceed to testing in humans”. Similar results were found for nonhuman primates and dogs.

Basically, animal tests are a 50:50 shot. It doesn’t seem to reveal all that much. After all, animal bodies aren’t the same as humans, no? That means we might have just used animals for convenience. It wasn’t a necessity.

And it looks like governments all over the world are waking up to this fact too. They’ve also realized this means we don’t need to inflict pain on animals for our medical needs. In 2021, the EU passed a fresh resolution to quicken the transition away from animal testing. In 2022, the US government said that animal testing for drugs wouldn’t be mandatory anymore. And in 2023, even India tweaked its laws to get researchers to move away from animal testing.

Okay, so what’s the alternative, you ask?

Well, science is slowly catching up. For starters, we could use computer modelling. Yeah, it sounds silly to think that a computer can mimic human biology. But it seems to work. For instance, researchers at the University of Oxford created software to mimic cardiac cells based on actual human data. You can make the cells healthy or diseased to see how the drug’s properties will affect it. And then run computer simulations which is known as an ‘in silico’ approach. It could reduce the need for animal testing by a whopping 90%!

But if you’re someone clamouring for a more ‘realistic’ experiment, there’s ‘organ on chip’. Yup, it’s exactly how it sounds. Scientists use a type of microchip and grow a human cell or tissue on it. But wait…isn’t it the same as putting human cells into a petri dish? It is, with one key difference. In the chip, you can make fluids flow between cells. If you picture this, it replicates blood flow in the body. But a petri dish cannot. And that factor alone could make a world of a difference.

Science is quite something, isn’t it?

But hey, don’t get too excited. Because the unfortunate reality is that none of these alternative methods have gained popularity yet. They’re not widespread. For one, the organ-on-chip method requires an extremely specialized skillset. So not many countries might be able to set up labs to do this. And in other cases, experts say that none of these methods can tell us much about chronic toxicity. Or how toxic a drug can be after long-term exposure.

And that means animal drug testing could remain the status quo for the foreseeable future. But with governments taking action, maybe we can figure out alternatives where alternatives are available?

Until then…

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