A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Professor Maurice Whelan about animal testing

Animal testing, a scientist’s opinion

Interview with Maurice Whelan, head of EURL ECVAM (European Union Reference Laboratory for alternatives to animal testing (EURL ECVAM) at the JRC (Joint Research Centre of the European Commission) in Ispra, Italy.

How do you think progress is going on reducing animal use for scientific purposes, and what is the JRC working on in this regard?

Maurice Whelan ESMH scientistMaurice Whelan: Today replacement of animal testing is possible and already implemented to assess some health effects such as skin irritation, skin corrosion, skin absorption and phototoxicity. However, for more complex health effects (e.g. reproductive toxicity) full replacement of animal tests is not yet scientifically possible. The European Commission is currently funding several research projects in these complex areas, for example the Horizon 2020 funded project EU-ToxRisk, which is a successful continuation of the prior Seventh Framework Programme research initiative SEURAT-1.

The JRC is the Commission’s science and knowledge service and has been active for nearly 30 years promoting the 3Rs in numerous ways both for toxicological testing and more recently for use in basic and applied research. We don’t work alone of course but collaborate closely with regulatory bodies, research consortia, NGOs and government agencies all over the world to ensure we’re all pulling in the same direction. International collaboration is so important. We’ve been working closely with international partners to ensure a harmonised approach across different regions and regulated sectors. We want to be as efficient and impactful as possible in what we do together.

Currently EURL ECVAM is conducting a set of major studies to review non-animal models currently in use for basic and applied research in seven disease areas, including neurodegenerative (e.g., Alzheimer, Parkinson, etc.) and respiratory diseases (e.g., fibrosis cystic, asthma, etc.). These non-animal models are also promoting innovation and competitiveness within the EU, for example by encouraging creation of new biotechnology enterprises and providing new tools for more efficient drug development and ‘safe design’ of chemicals used in the vast range of products available to us.

The safety of chemicals also needs to be ensured before placing any products on the market. In the areas of toxicology and safety assessment, validation of methods is an essential step for testing the toxicity of chemicals that are used in several sectors (e.g. chemicals, biocides, pesticides, food and feed). Since its establishment, EURL ECVAM has conducted and supported well over 50 validation studies of alternative methods proposed to address regulatory requirements often in collaboration with partners of the International Cooperation on Alternative Test Methods (ICATM). EURL ECVAM is currently undertaking its largest every study to assess 17 in vitro methods for the detection of chemicals which disrupt thyroid function.

Education and training play an essential role in changing mind-sets and driving progress in the development and uptake of alternative methods. In 2018, the European Parliament (EP) made one million euro available to the Commission to promote the use of alternatives to animal testing through knowledge sharing and education activities. The project results will be made publically available in 2020, which aims to promote existing alternatives, facilitate development and validation of new alternatives, foster exchanges of information, knowledge and best practices, and provide tools for education and training of future educators with guidance and practical tools.

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