Editorial: Challenges and Solutions: Redefining “Impossible”
In this issue, we describe PCRM’s development of a new test for serum insulin that goes beyond the animal-derived tests currently in use. The process of developing this test confirmed an important lesson for me.
Three years ago, as we were developing a research study to compare a low-fat vegan diet to a more standard diet for people with diabetes, I decided we needed a better test to measure insulin in our research participants. Now, common tests for insulin are based on laboratory techniques that are rather crude from a scientific standpoint and cruel from an ethical standpoint. To do the test, laboratories use antibodies—small protein molecules that adhere to insulin in the test tube and allow it to be measured. These antibodies are typically produced at large commercial suppliers by inserting antibody-producing cells into the abdomens of mice. The mice act basically as incubators, providing a warm environment for the cells. The irritating cells cause the animal’s body to swell with antibody-rich fluid, which is dutifully removed at intervals by a laboratory technician wielding a needle.
Now, these cells exist as immortal cell lines and laboratories can certainly grow them in the test tube. However, doing so presents another problem: laboratories use animal serum as a growth medium, which is obtained in a procedure that is very poorly standardized and also very cruel. Without going into details, slaughterhouses look for cattle who are pregnant at the time of slaughter. When a fetal calf is found, a large-bore tube is driven into the calf’s heart and the blood is vacuumed out. The serum is separated and sold. Its quality varies dramatically, as you can imagine, and the process is one that many scientists have complained about.
I telephoned one laboratory after another and called several experts in cellular methods. All agreed that it should be very feasible to produce the antibodies in the test tube. But doing so without animal serum? Impossible. It would never work. And no laboratory would be interested in even trying.
Well, in the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “Si je veux, je peux!” (If I want to, I can!) PCRM’s Megha Even, Chad Sandusky, and I sat down and worked out a plan. Over a period of several months and working with two contract laboratories, we identified the cells we needed and weaned them onto serum-free medium. We then watched how well they grew, whether they could still produce the antibodies we needed, and whether the antibodies would work in the test. When we ran test samples, not only did our new test work—technically, it was as good or even better than the existing tests.
My conclusion is that an “impossible” challenge is simply one whose solution is not yet clear. The solutions come into focus once the challenge is taken up.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM