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India and US Exploring Alternatives to Animal Testing in Biomedical Research

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan. From
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan. From

India’s national regulator for biomedical research, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), has recommended fast-tracking investments in technologies that can replace animal testing, following calls from an influential medical journal to transition drug toxicity and efficacy trials away from animals.

The call follows the publication of a paper on 12 August in Volume 149, Issue 5 of the Indian Journal of Medical Research (IJMR), by a senior team of researchers representing the ICMR. Led by Soumya Swaminathan, deputy director-general at the World Health Organization and former director of the ICMR, the paper’s authors said that alternative technologies would be more ethical and humane but also more cost-effective than animal testing. The team suggested that emerging technologies that model “complex human physiology—such as organoids and organs-on-a-chip, which are laboratory-grown versions of human tissues—are starting to rival, and in some cases outperform, animals in their ability to model human disease . . .” (Nature)

Alokparna Sengupta, managing director of the Indian chapter of Humane Society International, noted: “This is the first time that an important government agency has publicly spoken about the need for alternatives to animals in research. The need to replace animals in laboratories is not only an ethical issue but one critical to the advancement of medical research and to India’s technological and economic competitiveness on the global stage.” (The Times of India)

The ICMR had set up a committee to consider alternatives to animal testing in 2017, with Swaminathan advocating centers of research and investment in funds, as well as building global scientific alliances, to develop alternative technologies. (International Business Times)

A month after the IJMR’s article’s publication, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US announced an ambitious plan to end cruel and unnecessary animal testing by 2035 on September 10. This was a milestone in a long process of lobbying by politicians, journalists, and activists since the enactment of the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976. The EPA’s administrator, Andrew Wheeler—who has supported the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations and a former lobbyist for the coal industry—“described the directive as a continuation of efforts that accelerated in 2016, under the Obama administration, when the Toxic Substances Control Act was amended to require the EPA to reduce its reliance on animal testing.” (The Washington Post)


Congressman Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), who supported the directive, wrote on the political website The Hill: “. . . in 2007, the National Academies issued a landmark report calling for the EPA to shift from animal testing to alternatives. . . . In the decade or so since, the EPA has initiated a variety of important programs to reduce taxpayer-funded animal testing, as well as unnecessary animal testing required of industry. The EPA reports that its efforts in recent years have saved 200,000 animals.” (The Hill)

One project in the 2035 plan is to stimulate human pluripotent stem cells to eventually allow them to be subject to the same molecular cues as those of a human embryo. The project is led by Nicole zur Nieden and David Volz of the University of California, Riverside. Nevertheless, neither researcher is sure animal testing can ever be replaced completely.

“If your result is that the chemical does not interfere with a human stem cell developing in a dish, how sure can you be that’s not really happening in humans? The best way we have to assess that is an animal experiment,” zur Nieden said. She advocates a tiered system, with in vitro tests weeding out the most toxic chemicals first, and animal tests used where in vitro tests don’t reveal toxicity. (University of California, Riverside)

“If you cannot fully replace an animal test with an in vitro method, you can at least decrease suffering of the animal. If you think about a highly toxic chemical that has effects on the mom as she is exposed during pregnancy as well as on the developing embryos, if you can use an in vitro test system to find all these strong toxic chemicals, you will not need to test them in an animal,” she said. (University of California, Riverside)

These developments within India and the US reflect gradual moves across the world to reduce animal usage, including in Denmark, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, China, and South Korea.

See more

Need for alternatives to animals in experimentation: An Indian perspective (Indian Journal of Medical Research)
India pushes for alternatives to animals in biomedical research (Nature)
ICMR calls for animal-free test methods (The Times of India)
India roots for alternatives to animals in biomedical testing (International Business Times)
Administrator Memo Prioritizing Efforts to Reduce Animal Testing, September 10, 2019 (EPA)
EPA chief directs agency to dramatically reduce animal testing (The Washington Post)
New EPA plan to reduce animal testing will protect animals, the environment and taxpayers (The Hill)
Finding alternatives to animal testing (University of California, Riverside)

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