Professor Gilbert Schönfelder of Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment talks about the controversy and the challenging search for alternatives.
The Biotechnologist Uwe Marx is working on an alternative to animal testing in laboratories. He developed a miniature version of human organs- microchips cultured with cells to mimic organ structure and function. He believes up to 70 percent of the present-day animal testing can be replaced. Now what do you think about the idea of organ chips? Is that maybe the breakthrough to get rid of all this animal testing?
It's a very forward-looking, promising innovation: technology which is in focus all over the world right now. But I wouldn't say that we get rid of all the animal testings in the next years, or that this technology brings us away from seventy percent of all animal testings right now.
So you think in principle it is possible to set up a system which is very similar to a human body, right?
Well, I wouldn't say that we are on that way already. But we are very close, we can bring different organs on a chip together. But it took us about 500 million years of evolution to create an organism like a human body, bringing all the organs together and functional systems. It's very complex and to build up such a system in such a fast time, to mimic the whole human body at once, it takes a little bit longer.
I understand. So if we don't look that far into the future, I mean what else is there? Can you work with single cells, or what other ideas are there to reduce animal testing?
There is a whole bunch of ideas. We call that the "three R principle." That's reducement, replacement and refinement. So we have tissues, we have simple systems, and we have 3-D-systems, like printers. We can print an organ by using a kind of 3-D-printer to rebuild a system instead of just putting everything together.
And one day you might even be able to simulate it in the computer?
We're already simulating organ functions. That's what we call in silico experiments. But those experiments, they need a close combination of biological experiments together with bioinformatics or systems biology. But we are trying to get all this data together.
So I can tell that we are heading towards a future which could be very comfortable for animal rights activists, who want to ban all animal testing. Just tell us, what happened if we did so? What if we had to go completely without animal testing?
If we would ban animal testings right now, we get huge problems related to toxicity testing. If we don't have the right alternative, we would face side effects of drugs which were not tested.
Was there anything in the past, an experience that tells us we need it today?
Well, the whole story started with Contergan (thalidomide in English), a drug that was taken in the sixties by pregnant women, and at the end it turned out that their babies had teratology effects.
So we definitely don't want that again and similar effects. Thanks a lot for the talk, Professor Schönfelder.
(Interview: Ingolf Baur)