Will This Invention Spell the End of Drug Testing on Animals?

A chemical compound mimics how a real liver would react to a new medicine.

(Photo: GK Hart/Viki Hart/Getty Images)

Kristina Bravo is a Los Angeles–based writer. She is an Assistant Editor at TakePart.

Much to the dismay of animal rights advocates, philosophers, and probably the animals themselves, an estimated 25 million vertebrates are used for research, testing, and education every year in the U.S.

In welcome news to beagles everywhere, a new invention announced on Tuesday promises to change that: fake livers.

Technically speaking, that would be “chemosynthetic livers.” Mukund Chorghade, the chief scientific officer of drug discovery company Empiriko, presented his team’s research at the American Chemical Society’s meeting in Dallas Tuesday. If approved, scientists will be able to test drugs without experimenting on animals.

“These chemosynthetic livers not only produce the same metabolites as live animals in a fraction of the time,” Chorghade said in the announcement, “but they also provide a more comprehensive metabolic profile, in far larger quantities for further testing and analysis.”

So far, Chorghade’s team has tested more than 50 drugs wherein the chemosynthetic liver—a chemical compound—successfully mimicked reactions of an animal liver. Fifty more, and the team will meet the FDA’s requirement for regulatory approval.

Many advocates and scientists have long questioned the relevance of animal testing, considering the advancement of research and technology. In addition to contentious moral grounds, high costs, and time-consuming methods, the practice often fails to produce the same results derived from human trials. Newsweek reports that if found safe for animals, a chemical still only has an 8 percent chance of being approved for humans.

“It is a very painstaking, laborious, and costly process,” Chorghade said. “Frequently, scientists have to sacrifice many animals.”

Though the ACS, the world’s largest scientific society, believes that the new technology could put an end to animal testing, not everyone is as optimistic.

Edythe London, a professor and senior scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has dedicated her career to studying the effects of chronic drug abuse. Her lab’s use of primates has made her a target of radical animal activist groups, one of which left a bomb at her front door in 2008.

Since then, she’s had to justify the use of animals in scientific research. “We constantly strive to minimize the risk to them,” London wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. “However, a certain amount of risk is necessary to provide us with the information we need in a rigorously scientific manner.”

What does she think about Empiriko’s alternative?

“The new in vitro liver preparation offers cost and time advantages,” London says. “It has the potential to reduce but not eliminate the need for in vivo animal testing.”

The FDA requires laboratory animal testing for all new drugs. Whether this policy is nearing its end, only time will tell. At least one promising effort is halfway there.

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