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% by 2025. The goal is to eliminate 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’s 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 — 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 compounds affect complex living beings.
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 as much in basic cell tests or organs-on-a-chip.
Similarly, animal models are the only way to determine whether chemicals will cause 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 the last step in determining whether a product is safe for humans. Eliminating that step could lead to toxic chemicals being cleared for human use — simply because scientists would be unable to conclusively demonstrate they were unsafe.
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 humans and animals alike.
Just look at the history of medical progress. It took decades of research in monkeys, rats, and mice to develop a polio vaccine. Research in chimpanzees was instrumental in developing a 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 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.
Matthew R. Bailey is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. This piece originally ran in RealClearScience.