Podcast Transcript: Biomedical Engineering and Alternatives for Animal Testing with Pharmaceuticals.

Judit Jessica Szamosszegi

Welcome to my podcast.

My name is Jessie and I will be discussing information communication technology (or ICT) related to animal testing for pharmaceuticals, and specifically alternatives advanced by biomedical engineering.

Why is this important?

Well, it has been strongly suggested that the use of animals in experiments could be replaced by information communication and computer technologies (Akbarsha, M.A., & Zeeshan, M., & Meenakumari K.J). As an example, Jonathan Bacombe, a Department Chair for Animal Studies with Humane Societies University (Wikipedia) supplied evidence from educational studies which show that the majority of animal experiments are unnecessary and counterproductive (Nobis N). Many ICTs have been developed and are progressing as alternatives to animal testing, and has proven to be beneficial for both humans and other sentient animals. Richard Seabrook, head of business development at Wellcome Trust, stated that over the past 15-20 years, there had been a dramatic increase in biomedical research results (Piesing, Mark). In order for these technologies to continue advancing and eventually replace animal testing, like anything else, people need to be aware and have an opinion. Especially since ethical concerns are a huge part of the discussion, it is important to take off the blinders and come to a fair majority resolution together.

According to Health Canada, Canada still uses animal testing because they believe it is important to see how the whole body reacts and functions to the circumstances given. This is important because other non-animal testing techniques usually do not have this effect. For example, computer models are based on single-cell reactions instead of the reactions of the entire body (Health Canada). However, testing on animals is based on the assumption that animals will react the same way a human would with a new chemical or drug; this is false, however, because an animal body is still not similar enough to the human body. This is the main reason why using animals is considered unpredictable by many in the field; animals react differently than humans (Piesing).

As a result, many animal tested products have caused serious damage to people in the past. Even though they were tested for “safety” with animal procedures, these products have caused serious side-effects and even deaths. There was an infamous tragedy which was a result of the drug thalidomide in 1957 (Bara Fintel, Athena T. Samaras, Edson Carias). It was sold to pregnant women as a supposedly harmless tranquilizer and caused a horrific and inestimable amount of birth defects worldwide (Akbarsha, M.A., & Zeeshan, M., & Meenakumari K.J). Another example is in December, 2004, with the drug Vioxx by Merck & Co. Inc., which was denounced from sale due to serious cases of cardiovascular effects, including heart attacks and strokes. Eighty million people had taken this medicine already though, with an estimated 38,000 deaths. These events among many others could have been prevented if the medicines were not reliant on animal testing (Akbarsha, M.A., & Zeeshan, M., & Meenakumari K.J).

This information might be scary because I am going to assume at least most of you listening right now have been to the pharmacy to pick up some Advil for a headache, or probably some other medicine for a cold or flu. Maybe even some much needed prescription drugs. But have you ever thought about how it got on the shelf?

According to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, it can take up to twelve years before a new medicine is put on those shelves (Piesing). US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) statistics state that only around one in every ten new medicinal products ever reach just the registration stage (Akbarsha, M.A., & Zeeshan, M., & Meenakumari K.J). For that one medicine, 25000 ingredients have been tested, and most of those ingredients are tested on animals.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) –a very popular animal rights organization– claims that approximately 3.33 million animals are used in labs annually, and that’s just in Canada. The animals are subjected to severe suffering and death. One of the world’s most well renowned toxicologists, Dr. Gerhard Zbinden, stated that a basic animal-based test is simply a ritual mass execution of animals (NEAVS). Not only are the animals tortured and killed in the process of animal testing, but they are eventually killed even if they survive the experiments. Take into consideration the fact that for only one drug or chemical substance, the testing of it could involve utilizing up to 800 animals, not to mention the cost of it totaling over six million dollars, just for commonly inconclusive ends (NEAVS).

However, animal testing is used to attempt to predict the effectiveness and safety of various things (What is Animal Testing Used for? [link]), so why am I only talking about pharmaceuticals?

Well, from my own past experience, I know that there are more people than not who know that animal testing for something like cosmetics are not ethical, considering it is simply an aesthetic purpose. But how far does it go? Are people okay with animal testing in some areas but not others? I do think that that’s the case. I think that people are more confused when it comes to the “gray” area of pharmaceuticals and human health. Still, I conducted a questionnaire that ended up disproving my hypothesis, at least in a limited population context. I will tell you about that in just a moment.

It is clear that animal testing has harmed and continues to harm both humans and other animals. Nonetheless, in the last few decades, there has been a dramatic increase in concern for the treatment of animals. According to U.S National Institutes of Health, by the 90’s, congress had received more animal-related concerns than any other topic. Recently, alternatives to animal testing are becoming increasingly popular because people have begun to recognize that animals are sentient, and that there are alternatives (Akbarsha, M.A., & Zeeshan, M., & Meenakumari K.J).

In order to find out for myself, I conducted a small research experiment where I created a simple two question questionnaire and asked ten people to answer it for me. I asked people this:

Are you for or against animal testing for pharmaceutical purposes?

And then If they answered “yes, I am for animal testing”, a second question follows asking if they are aware of the existing, potential, and preventative alternatives for it. If they weren’t aware, does that change their opinion on their position for animal testing?

I was both very surprised and pleased with the responses I got.

Those ten who answered my questionnaire never even got to the second question, meaning that they were against animal testing, even for pharmaceutical purposes, from the get-go. I would also like to quietly mention that most of the participants happened to be science related university majors, which is one of the reasons I was very surprised about their responses.

To be honest, I expected that about a couple people would agree with animal testing, at least for pharmaceuticals. But I was pleased to find out that this small group of people did not, even though I’m aware that at least a few do take medicines themselves. This means that people and therefore, consumers of pharmaceuticals, do not agree with the way that they are provided, and this stresses a certain mindset which should be addressed and provided for by companies accordingly.

I believe that whether they were aware of the details or not is unimportant to this experiment because the main concern for people when they hear “animal testing” is, I think, obviously an ethical one. Many people have pets, or have felt a real connection with an animal at least once.

When you look in to the eyes of an animal, you know that they are not too different from us. I would like to believe that humans have a tendency to care for those who are helpless, those who do not have a voice. Animals bring out the caring nature of people, and they help us remember that we are animals too, that we are not the only ones that matter.

I would like to think that if there was a better alternative, you would also believe that we should not test on animals. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been to any supermarket and seen the increasing amounts of “not tested on animals” labels, and thought to myself “well, these products must be more ethical”. However, you don’t normally see those labels on pharmaceuticals. Well what if I told you that it could be possible, and that technology is making this happen. And not only is it more ethical, but it is also proven to be more accurate and beneficial for humans as well.

Right now, I am going to talk specifically about biomedical engineering as an alternative. However, there are many other alternatives (here are just a few of them. link to blogpost). Biomedical engineering is the application of engineering to medicine and biology related to healthcare. It is basically aimed to close the gap between engineering and medicine, and includes many subfields (Wikipedia). New testing technology in this area has been proven to be more accurate and reliable than animal testing. It is also more cost-effective because the technology allows faster results, and it is also more environmentally friendly since the disposal of billions of corpses are not necessary (NEAVS).

There are so many cool things happening in the field of biomedical engineering right now. I want to tell you about just a few of them.

Tissue engineering (What is Tissue Engineering? [link]) is a large part of biomedical research and involves using stem cells to replicate the parts needed of a living organism. Professor Gefen, the head of Tel Aviv University’s Teaching Laboratory for Cell and Tissue Engineering, has begun using rat stem cells to recreate bone, skin, muscle tissue, and fat for his research and testing. He says that not only does it result in zero deaths, but that the experiments are clearer and much more controlled (ScienceDaily).

Other cell-based tests and tissue models are used to determine the safety of chemicals, drugs, and other products as well. Skin irritation and corrosion can be tested with 3D human cell-derived models which mimics the reactions and replaces the use of small animals (PETA). An example of this is MatTek’s EpiDerm, look it up! (link)

Another result of biologically inspired engineering is the “organ on a chip”. You may have heard of this one before, it’s very exciting! Professor Donald Ingber, the founding director of Harvard’s Wyss Institute, is one of the creators of this invention. It involves placing human cells and fluids on a little piece of transparent silicone. The fluids flow through the chips and can be connected to each other to form compositions of lungs, livers, intestines, eyes, etc., and mimic the reactions of a whole human body(Piesing). Since the organ on a chip replicates the structures and functions of human organs, it can replace animals in the research of diseases, toxicity and drug testing. The chips are recently becoming more widely manufactured, and have already been used by some companies to replace animals (PETA).

Another way is computer aided modelling which simulate human biology and developing diseases in the body (PETA). They can incorporate information from varieties of technological and biological structures and predict the effects of a compound under certain conditions and therefore evaluate toxicological results (Liebsch et al). Virtual computer models hold an extensive amount of equations which describe cell interactions between the cells and applied chemicals. This is what allows realistic simulation (Piesing). An example of this is the iStan, listen to this! [audio]

Finally, you’re not going to believe this but thousands of miniature hearts have been mass-produced by Professor Nikolai Zhelev from Abertay University. These miniature hearts can be injected with diseases and different drugs and chemicals in order to observe if damages can be reversed or prevented. Zhelev has expressed the importance of this invention and the fact that they are even more accurate than animals, speeding up the amount of time it takes to get to clinical trials. He states that along with computer modelling, this area is still advancing, however, it is advancing very quickly (Piesing).

These are some of the examples of biomedical engineering alternatives which I find the most interesting, and hopefully they shocked you the same way they did for me. The world is becoming more and more advanced, and I hope that soon enough, animals won’t have to suffer for our products and that our testing methods will become more accurate and efficient for us.

And next time you reach for that product on the shelf, you can be aware of what it took to get it there.

References

Akbarsha, Mohammad A., Mohammed Zeeshan, and K. J. Meenekumari. "Alternatives to animals in education, research and risk assessment: An overview with special reference to Indian context." ALTEX Proc 2 (2013): 5-19.

“Alternatives to Animal Testing”. Peta. Web

“Alternatives in Testing”. NEAVS. Web.

American Friends of Tel Aviv University. "A lab rat -- created in the lab: Bioengineering tissues as an alternative to animal testing." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 April 2010.

Bara Fintel, Athena T. Samaras, Edson Carias. “THE THALIDOMIDE TRAGEDY: LESSONS FOR DRUG SAFETY AND REGULATION”. Helix. Web.

“Biomedical Engineering”. Wikipedia. Web. “iStan”. CAE Healthcare. Web.

“Jonathan Balcambe”. Wikipedia. Web.

Knight, Andrew. "Alternatives to Animal Testing." Veterinary Times (2011): 8-10.

Liebsch, Manfred, et al. "Alternatives to animal testing: current status and future perspectives." Archives of toxicology 85.8 (2011): 841-858.

“Medical Testing”. Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. Web.

Nobis, Nathan. "Animal dissection and evidence-based life-science and health-professions education." Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 5.2 (2002): 157-161.

Piesing, Mark. “How tech could spell the end of animals in drugs testing”. The Gaurdian. Web.