This article is part of our special report The way forward to an animal-free science.
The unveiling of the EU’s chemicals strategy has sparked mixed reactions on whether it could act as a catalyst for phasing out animal tests or instead increase reliance on them.
Presented in October, the chemicals strategy is intended as a first step towards a zero pollution ambition for a toxic-free environment as part of the European Green Deal.
The strategy also emphasises the need to foster multidisciplinary research and digital innovations, methods and models, and data analysis capacities to move away from animal testing.
In 2017, over 230,000 animal tests were carried out in the EU to satisfy requirements under the regulation for evaluating and authorising chemicals (REACH), as EU legislation has not excluded testing on animals as a last resort.
Although the publication of the strategy has been seen in general as a positive development, some lawmakers are worried about the lack of specific references and clear goals for phasing out animal testing and promoting alternative methods.
“There is quite a concern that the proposed chemicals strategy may result in a lot more animal testing and less commitment,” said the chair of European Parliament’s Industry Committee (ITRE), Romanian lawmaker Cristian-Silviu Bușoi.
Speaking at the annual conference of the European Partnership for Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing (EPAA), the Christian Democrat MEP urged the European institutions to move quickly away from outdated testing requirements.
“The Green Deal requires us to totally change the paradigm and look at the models of the future, not of yesterday,” he stressed.
According to him, ingredient safety assessments without animal data must be accepted when based on sound science, greater human relevance and when they have a better rationale for protecting human health.
In a recent interview with EURACTIV, another centre-right MEP, Finland’s Sirpa Pietikäinen, pointed out that the Commission’s proposal needs to be amended in the Parliament to speed up the pace of moving away from animal testing.
Optimism of the science
To freely paraphrase the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, the pessimism of politics opposes the optimism of science when it comes to the chemicals strategy’s capacity to make the science world animal-free.
Scientists appear to have high hopes for the strategy.
For Maurice Whelan, head of the EU’s reference laboratory for alternatives to animal testing (EURL-ECVAM) at the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), the blueprint represents a great opportunity for the extensive use of alternative methods.
“Alternative approaches will be an absolute necessity to achieve many of the key objectives in this strategy,” he said during the EPAA event.
According to Whelan, putting together more information on the health effects of chemicals will require simplifying the processes for the assessment across the different sectors involved.
This would be impossible to achieve with current approaches that are solely based on animal tests. “It’s not the case of whether we shift to alternatives rather of how and how fast we’ll do it,” he said.
Likewise, the vice-president for global product stewardship at the global corporation Procter & Gamble (P&G), Patrick Masscheleyn, said that, if the strategy requires more chemicals to be assessed, regulators and industry need to do it faster and in a more cost-effective way, which could favour the uptake of alternative testing.
The strategy also aims to shift away from animal testing by developing common standards and innovative risk assessment tools internationally, notably with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
“There are reasons to be optimistic worldwide,” said Anna Lowit, senior science advisor at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), mentioning the fact that scientists have never had this many models and approaches.
“There are fantastic opportunities, it’s just a matter of taking them,” she concluded.
Promoting 3 R’s
All the panellists stressed the importance of cooperation between industry, politicians and academia to complete the path of phasing out animal tests.
“It is very important to continue the dialogue with all stakeholders, and use all the initiatives to promote the 3 R’s,” said Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius in his introductory remarks.
The “3 Rs” concept – on Replacement, Reduction and Refinement of animal testing – was introduced 60 years ago by scientists W.M.S. Russel and R.L. Burch in their seminal work on ‘The Principles of Human Experimental Technique’.
Since then, the scientific community, NGOs, politicians, and the public have espoused the concept and developed it further.
After 15 years of existence, the EPAA platform has tried to bring together the EU executive and the private sector in order to facilitate the acceptance of new approach methodologies to animal testing.
To spread the use of alternatives to animal testing, the EPAA also awards grants and prizes for researchers and students, such as the 3Rs Science Prize.
This year, the award went to post-doctoral researcher Vivian Meraviglia for her work using 3D ‘mini’ hearts from human induced pluripotent stem cells.
Her work represents an innovative in vitro model of the human heart that is well suited for studying disease, drug responses and cardiotoxicity without involving animals.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]