German researchers want to use new stem cell testing methods to replace hundreds of thousands experiments on animals. Animal welfare activists are pleased, but wary.
Stem cell research is a controversial issue
A test based on the use of stem cells from mice can offer "at least the same amount of information about the possible toxic effects on unborn human life as experiments on mice, rabbits, rats and guinea pigs," said Cologne-based physician Heribert Bohlen, one of the co-developers of the new "R.E.Tox" method. In addition to saving animal lives, Bohlen says testing using the new stem cell technology is more economical than conventional animal experiments.
The TÜV Rheinland Group and the Cologne research company Axiogenesis developed the R.E.Tox method to study the effects of chemicals on the unborn. The developers claim that the method can show whether or not a substance damages cells or hinders their development. TÜV director Bruno Braun said that the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM) had already confirmed the effectiveness of the process.
Guinea pigs are a prime object for research experiments
ECVAM is an institution that was created based on a European Union directive calling for the development, validation and acceptance of methods which could reduce, refine or replace the use of laboratory animals.
A humane alternative
Roman Kolar, a biologist and deputy director of the Animal Welfare Academy near Munich, says that while the stem cell method is very welcome, he is quick to point out that it is not new.
"ECVAM confirmed back in 2001 that stem cell tests for embryotoxicity work," Kolar said, but conceded that "such testing can indeed save many, many animals' lives."
Bohlen estimates that "to achieve the same information that the R.E.Tox method produces, one would have to conduct experiments on 150 to 300 animals for just one substance. We can therefore save hundreds of thousands of animal lives in the future."
However, the ECVAM said in a statement that in vitro testing methods for embryotoxicity "do not represent replacements for current animals test for reproductive toxicity as a whole."
Rats in a research lab in Frankfurt
Animal testing still widespread
While animal welfare activists are happy when animals' lives can be saved, regardless of the number, they emphasize that wide-spread testing on animals still continues.
According to Kolar, screening for potentially embryotoxic substances and their classification is "just a very small area of all the experiments conducted on animals."
"Animal use in science ranges from regulatory compound testing to basic research on monkeys' brains," he added.
Kolar also stressed that while it is commendable that the Axiogenesis company has developed its own version of testing embryotoxity using mice stem cells, they intend to use that version exclusively inside their own laboratories.
But he also pointed out that this makes the official acceptance of the method -- which is normally intended for EU-wide use -- problematic due to the lack of transparency.
Mice stem cells behave similarly to human ones
The REACH list
While the R.E.Tox method can now be applied in the commercial sector, the TÜV Rheinland Group hopes the method will also be put on the "REACH" list of acceptable testing methods.
REACH is a European Union "Ordinance on Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals" which has yet to be fully passed, but which would -- upon approval -- require the testing of at least 30,000 chemicals already on the market.
Up to 6,000 different substances would have to be analyzed as to whether they would adversely affect fertility or an embryo's development. Final REACH legislation is expected to be passed by the end of 2006.