Animal testing forms a big part of pharmaceutical research. Currently, before a new compound or drug can even enter clinical trials on humans, it has to be tested on non-human animals. Pharmaceutical companies need to prove that the drug is "safe" before human trials can be initiated, and this is done using non-human animals. Now, a group of scientists believe they may have found a viable alternative.
Animals are necessary and used in pharmaceutical testing for numerous reasons. One such reason is determining whether the drug is toxic to the subject. This is done by investigating how the compound is broken down, or metabolized, by the liver into other byproducts known as metabolites. These metabolites can build up over time with repeat drug use and often cause serious and unpredictable problems. It would be exceedingly unwise and very dangerous to give a human a drug that has not undergone rigorous animal testing; many drugs fail at the first hurdle because of unexpected effects that could have devastating consequences on people.
It's important to realize, however, that what happens in an animal model may not mirror what will happen in a human. Animal testing is still limited in what it can tell us. But as it stands there is currently nothing available that can give us as much information on how a particular drug will interact with our bodies as an animal model can. Despite what some may believe, scientists in fact don't want to have to kill large numbers of animals in the name of research; people want to find alternatives, and scientists have been working hard to try and find one.
Some promising research was presented recently at the 247th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society. Mukund Chorghade, chief scientific officer at Empiriko, has developed chemosynthetic liver technology aimed at mimicking certain enzymes present in the liver which are responsible for the breakdown of drugs. This patented technology, called Biomimiks, makes use of catalysts that behave in a similar manner to a group of liver enzymes called cytochrome P450. A catalyst is something that speeds up a chemical reaction without being used up itself.
This means that the metabolic profile of a drug could be investigated using these chemosynthetic livers in a fraction of the time it takes in an animal model, yielding even more comprehensive results. Chorghade's team has already used this to test the profiles of over 50 drugs, and has demonstrated that they behave in a similar manner to the human liver. However, a further 50 are required before the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will grant regulatory approval. The team have also been using this technology to investigate how different drugs taken at the same time might interact with each other.
Although this is certainly encouraging, if regulatory approval is granted this still does not mean that animals will be replaced in pharmaceutical research overnight. It's difficult to see how this technology can be informative when it comes to other important issues that are taken into consideration when a new drug is tested, such as whether it might be carcinogenic. But technology such as this could be a step in the right direction, and may at least eventually help to reduce the need for animal use.