Banning Animals in Toxicity Studies Could Be a Costly Mistake

Banning Animals in Toxicity Studies Could Be a Costly Mistake
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Banning Animals in Toxicity Studies Could Be a Costly Mistake
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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The Environmental Protection Agency is looking to end certain kinds of animal research.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler just directed the agency to reduce requests and funding for studies with mammals in toxicity studies by 30 percent by 2025. The goal is to eliminate all chemical safety tests in mammals by 2035.

In theory, that's a noble goal. Everyone in the research community should be on board with reducing the usage of animals in toxicity tests where scientifically feasible.

But we also must be realistic about the limits of alternatives to animal research. In some cases, there is no other way to evaluate the safety and efficacy of substances than to study their impact in animals. Nowhere is that truer than in biomedical research -- the type of science that yields treatments that save and enhance the lives of humans and animals alike.

Scientists are trying to develop computer models powerful enough to simulate research in animals. But the technology just isn't there yet. And while cell cultures can indicate the impact of a substance or chemical at a very basic level, they can't replicate the myriad ways that compounds affect complex living beings, with their many interconnected bodily systems.

For example, scientists cannot extrapolate the impact of a chemical on our immune system from research in cells or organs. It's conceivable that a compound could cause an immunological condition like lupus -- but not demonstrate this in basic cell tests or organs-on-a-chip.

Similarly, animal models are the only way to determine whether chemicals will cause health problems during different developmental stages like pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence.

"At present, we don't have test systems that mimic all phases of human development," said Leigh Ann Burns Naas, past president of the U.S. Society of Toxicology. "Predicting effects on higher-order functions like cognition, learning and memory will also be a challenge . . . Toxicologists are working diligently on all these problems, but it isn't possible to say with confidence that we will have solutions any time soon."

Counter-intuitively, banning toxicity research in animals opens the door for more toxic chemicals to make their way into humans. Such research is typically the last step in determining whether a product is safe for humans. Eliminating that step could lead to potentially toxic chemicals being cleared for human use -- simply because scientists would be unable to conclusively demonstrate they were unsafe.

Using alternative methods to test for toxicity "could allow the chemical industry to much more easily exonerate chemicals by saying: we have done the tests," said Kristi Pullen Fedinick, the director of science and data at the National Resources Defense Council.

The EPA's decision also risks opening the door to banning animal research in other contexts -- most notably medical research. That would be disastrous for the health of humans and animals alike. 

Just look at the history of medical progress. It took decades of research in monkeys, rats, and mice to develop an effective polio vaccine. Research in chimpanzees was instrumental in developing an effective vaccine for hepatitis B. Animal research is the reason we're able to perform organ transplants, heart bypass surgery, chemotherapy, and blood transfusions.

Animals have benefited from this research, too. The vaccines that we administer to our pets for distemper, rabies, tetanus, and feline leukemia were all developed in animal models.

More breakthroughs are on the way. Scientists are currently using animals to develop new treatments for Alzheimer's, cancer, diabetes, and countless other debilitating diseases.

All this progress could come to a halt if other agencies follow the EPA's move -- and look to restrict animal research. While the effort may be well-intentioned, it may also end up being a costly mistake by putting the long-term health, safety, and well-being of the public and their pets at risk.

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