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Animal testing: an alternative future

In the last few decades, the public has become far more aware of the cruelty and unreliability of testing cosmetics on animals. In 2013, a milestone in the long journey towards its end was reached in the EU when new legislation came into force, swiftly followed by similar bans in India and Israel. For much of the world, however, there is still a long way to go.

The EU-wide ban of the testing of cosmetics or their ingredients on animals was a key moment in the fight against cruelty in cosmetics that began in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, and led to its outlawing by the 1990s, with mounting political and public pressure placed on Europe until the law was passed.    

However, despite greater public awareness and key legislative changes  – and with further campaigns and new bills gaining momentum in Australia, Brazil, and the United States – alternatives are yet to be fully embraced in the EU. Why? While testing cosmetics on animals has been banned in the EU under one regulation, the Cosmetics Directive, it can still take place under the safety legislation required by the European chemical agency REACH.

The key to an alternative future

Modern science, political will, and public pressure hold the key to a future where no animals are harmed in research. In the last few decades, scientists have developed a number of non-animal alternatives using the latest techniques, from in vitro (test tube) methods based on cell and tissue cultures to computer models and simulations, as well as advocating human testing. These alternatives are often more reliable than what many view as outdated animal tests, and are quicker, cheaper, and more practical.

A former director of the US National Institutes of Health, Dr Elias Zerhouni, believes that researchers have over-relied on animal data. “We have moved away from studying human disease in humans,” he observes. “We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.”

Alternative testing

After more than three decades of campaigning without an end to animal testing, and feeling frustrated at the continuing entrenchment in animal data, Lush launched an initiative called The Lush Prize. This research award is a £250,000 incentive towards finding a ‘Eureka moment’  – an innovative solution for safety testing without using animals.

One of the areas scientists are exploring for this breakthrough is ‘21st-century toxicology’. This new approach to safety testing is now possible thanks to advances in computer science and robotics, biology, and genetics. Focusing on human ‘toxicity pathways’, it uses computer technology to research the journey and the impact of a chemical through the human body. This information can then be used to create non-animal safety tests that will be more cost-effective, have faster results, and be more relevant to humans than using animals.

Among those championing 21st-century toxicology research is The United States National Research Council, which is calling for alternative ways to test the effects of environmental chemicals and approved drugs on human health and the environment than in animals, and the Humane Society International (HSI), 2012 winners of the Lush Prize for Lobbying. In 2015, the first black box prize of £25 000 was awarded to four scientists and their teams who contributed to a significant toxicology breakthrough. 

Cell culture testing

In encouraging breakthrough research, the Lush Prize has also resulted in helping an innovative lab develop its work in the field of in vitro testing on cell and tissue cultures. XCELLR8 provides scientifically advanced and ethically sound alternatives to animal tests for the cosmetics industry, providing complete replacement tests for the cosmetics companies and their raw material suppliers. It also helps train researchers and young scientists in its innovative work so they can adopt these alternative technologies and take them forward into their careers. It is this educational work that secured them the Lush Prize for Training 2013.

The lab is currently working with Lush to develop even more advanced animal-free tests for cosmetics, some of which involve growing three-dimensional models of artificial human skin to see how a cosmetic would affect the human body. Using a single layer of human skin cells, the culture dish is then exposed to air under specialised conditions for a period of about four weeks.  The cells multilayer up into a three-dimensional structure, which is almost identical to the structure of human skin.

“It’s a very powerful tool for doing away with the traditional animal experiments,” observes Dr Carol Barker, founder of XCELLR8. “This is the same technology as used in tissue engineering to grow skin grafts for burns patients."

“One of the major advantage of these models is that, because the models are 3D, they contain all the critical layers that human skin contains – including our skin barrier, which is very important in assessing cosmetic function and cosmetic safety. You can apply a finished formulation to the skin barrier and can see exactly what would happen in the body.”

The challenges for alternative methods

The challenge for those producing or hoping to use non-animal alternatives is that for government authorities like REACH and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)  to accept them, they must be scientifically validated. This means consistent results have to be produced within and between laboratories. According to the HSI, this is “a slow and expensive requirement, sometimes taking more than 10 years and a million dollars for a single alternative method.”

The answer, believes Lush’s Director of Regulatory Affairs Karl Bygrave, is to lead by example. “We don’t have all the answers, but we’re asking the questions,” he explains. “We’re helping fund breakthroughs and discovering what is truly safe and what isn’t. We look at what is being asked for by REACH and we can show alternatives that have been validated and agreed by the OECD. We’re building up our own bank of tests, and we’re in preparation stage to start using the alternatives.”

The future

Is it possible for cosmetics to go from a concept through to a shop shelf without ever needing to be tested on animals? Dr Barker makes it clear this can and should be happening – and that the cosmetics industry is in a powerful position to drive change across other industries.

“We have enough scientific advances in place now so the ingredients or final product can be screened purely in a human-based system without using any animal components at all,” she says. “I think that for some other industries, especially the pharmaceutical industry,  it’s going to be a lot longer before we can see that happening.

“The scientific community and the people that enforce the regulations need to work together to look at what alternative tests are now available, to put funding into driving those forward, and perhaps set some deadlines for the pharmaceutical industry in the same way they were set for the cosmetic industry. Ultimately, it was those commercial drivers that made people sit up and listen to what the public have wanted all along.”

Lush’s Ethics Director Hilary Jones agrees that for significant change to happen, a future where animals are protected has to involve both science and legislation. “One or the other doesn’t get rid of it,” she laments. “Ultimately, until everything can be tested with alternatives and without the use of animals, they are not safe from future legislation; they are not safe from future product development, and they are not safe from human society and its consumer needs.”

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