This past year was full of advances in science and policy that demonstrate exciting progress in making science more humane and human-relevant. Here are our favorites:
1. USDA database mostly restored
The removal of USDA inspection reports from their online database earlier this year left the public with no way of readily accessing these reports, preventing public knowledge of which facilities using animals had violations of the Animal Welfare Act. After great pressure from the Physicians Committee and other animal advocacy organizations, the database was partially restored. While inspection reports can now be readily accessed again, identifying information of certain violators, specifically breeders, has been blacked out.
2. Bioprinting of human tissues
Bioprinting of three-dimensional (3-D) human tissue allows researchers to create more accurate models of human tissues and organs to study and eliminate the use of animals. There are often differences between individuals in the effectiveness or toxicity of a given drug, mostly because we all absorb and metabolize—or break down—drugs at different rates. The differences between animals like rats or mice and people are even greater. With 3-D bioprinting, models can be made from the patient’s own cells, allowing researchers to tailor treatments to the specific person. We have reported on two different studies authored by scientists who created tissues to help assess how drugs are absorbed into or metabolized in the body. We also reported on a 3-D-printed brain model. In fact, there were 199 studies in the scientific literature this year reporting advances in creating human tissues models using bio-printing techniques, and we expect this to keep growing in the coming years.
3. Surgical simulation advances
This year saw the rise of a new way to teach medical procedures without animals. Maximum Fidelity Surgical Simulations has pioneered a groundbreaking method for perfusing the blood vessels of human cadavers. Using artificial blood, the cadavers can be used in scenarios ranging from operating rooms to outdoor exercises for military medics.
Miniature versions of human organs make up microphysiological systems, or organs-on-chips. These tiny devices, which are about the size of a USB flash drive, are designed to mimic human tissues and allow scientists to see how human cells and tissues behave. Organs-on-chips are capable of replacing animals for drug testing and the development of new treatments, as well as studying a variety of disease processes and responses. The National Institutes of Health doubled down on previous investments in 2017, providing $15 million a year for two years to scientists around the country to develop models for human diseases. They even debuted a “tissue chips in space” project. Major progress on developing these breakthrough systems was made in 2017, in studying lung cancer, cardiotoxicity, asthma and infection, vascular biology, and the blood brain barrier.
5. FDA Releases Predictive Toxicology Roadmap
In December, the Food and Drug Administration released a groundbreaking Predictive Toxicology Roadmap aiming to transform the safety testing conducted for FDA-regulated products. The six-part Roadmap reflects a shift at FDA from animal-based testing toward cutting-edge human-based approaches, such as organs-on-chips, computational toxicology and read-across methodologies. Human-based approaches are expected to provide more predictive information than animal testing because they enable scientists to directly investigate how drugs interact with human cells, tissues and processes.
6. Adverse Outcome Pathway for Respiratory Sensitization
This fall, scientists led by the Physicians Committee’s Kristie Sullivan, M.P.H., published a paper outlining an Adverse Outcome Pathway for chemicals which cause sensitization of the respiratory tract. This dangerous condition develops often in health care, cleaning, and chemical industry workers, and causes them to experience severe coughing, wheezing, constriction of the airways, and other asthma-like symptoms that worsen upon repeated exposure to smaller and smaller amounts of specific chemicals, making work dangerous or impossible. Our team of toxicologists, immunologists, and chemists combed the scientific literature for all studies related to this endpoint, and constructed a pathway for how we think this condition develops, from exposure to chemicals at the molecular level to priming of immune cells to over-react and cause these symptoms.
AOPs outline the state of the science for a particular toxicological endpoint (or effect, such as carcinogenicity) and make it easier for scientists to develop nonanimal approaches to test chemicals for effects of interest. Now that the AOP has been published in the scientific literature, the team is evaluating the human cell-and computer-based methods they identified to build evidence for regulatory agencies to use these methods instead of animals to identify chemicals that may cause this devastating disease.
7. State and county officials speak out against UW’s use of animals
The University of Washington has the only paramedic training program in the nation known to use live animals. Pigs are used to teach surgical airway and then killed. But in January 2017, after outreach from Physicians Committee staff and members, eight members of the Washington House of representatives wrote to UW to raise their concern about the practice. A few months later, two elected officials in King County, home to UW, followed suit. The university is feeling the pressure and has agreed to pursue the development of a method to replace animals. While several human-based methods are already available for surgical airway training, UW’s decision is progress.
8. Stem cell resource established
Human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells provide a human-based approach to model diseases. This year, significant advancements were made in modeling several diseases with stem cells, giving us better insight into the effects of those disease in humans. Some breakthroughs include the use of stem cells to model diabetes, prion disease, and anorexia nervosa. To continue to facilitate breakthroughs, researchers from the Human Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Initiative created the most comprehensively characterized bank of human stem cell lines complied to date. These normal human-derived stem cells will benefit scientists by allowing them to better understand the natural variations of stem cell lines, and thus natural variations among the human population.
9. Funding for EPA research to develop alternatives supported by Congress
Research at the EPA’s National Center for Computational Toxicology is essential for spurring progress to replace animal testing with human-relevant methods, especially under a mandate from the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century that requires EPA to replace and reduce animal tests for assessing chemical safety. However, the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal would have slashed funding for the chemical research by 31 percent. After lobbying by the Physicians Committee and other organizations, these proposed cuts to EPA budget did not become a reality and computational toxicology funding levels were maintained, allowing the EPA to continue developing studies that protect public health and countless animal lives.
10. Plants Found to Model Anesthetic Drug Efficacy
A very unique study published in December found that plants exhibiting touch-induced movements (such as the Venus fly-trap) respond to anesthetic drugs in similar ways to humans. The drugs apparently block the same molecular mechanisms and electrical signals at work in humans and other animals, and could represent an alternative to testing the safety and effectiveness of new drugs in animals.