The Wyss Institute at Harvard, for example, has engineered microchips – “called “organs-on-chips” – that mimic the structure and functions of living human organs, including the lung, intestine, kidney, skin and bone marrow.
Private businesses have also gotten into the act, including MatTek Corp. of Ashland, Mass., which is marketing 3D reconstructed human tissue models – based on real human cells – for toxicology research that can be used by the cosmetics, chemical, pharmaceutical and household product industries.
Other groups, however, say there are limits. They contend that such alternatives do not allow scientists to test disease treatments “in a whole living system.”
“In vitro” technology can eliminate the need for costly animal testing colonies, and provide more precise research because biological reactions by monkeys, rabbits or dogs often do not accurately mimic human responses, said Kate Willett, director of regulatory toxicology risk assessment and alternatives for the Humane Society of the United States.
Willett slammed Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute for testing the effects of diesel exhaust on monkeys for an industry group that included Volkswagen. The institute decided not to publish the results after learning that Volkswagen had provided rigged equipment.
The effect of “diesel exhaust has been extremely well-characterized,” Willett said. “They could measure the levels of things they know are toxic without any testing. Testing on monkeys like that seems like the weirdest testing I’ve ever heard of.”
LRRI itself has acknowledged that, on at least one occasion, animal testing may not always be relevant to humans.
In a court deposition, Jacob McDonald, chief science officer at the Lovelace institute, referred to studies the institute did throughout the 1980s showing that diesel exhaust fumes caused cancer in laboratory rats. It turned out the findings were “related to some physiologic sort of abnormalities in rats” and repeat studies with other animals did not result in cancer.
The rat results, he said “… although real, may or may not be predictive of what … may be observed in humans.”
The Foundation for Biomedical Research cautions that while computer models and cell cultures can reduce the use of animals, “there is no way to completely replace animal testing and research because the pathway to fully duplicating a whole, living system does not yet exist.”
The foundation, which promotes understanding of biomedical research, says scientists “must study treatments for diseases in a whole living system in order to discover and develop new drugs to fight them. They can’t do that in a single cell or with tissue in a petri dish alone.”
For University of New Mexico emeritus psychology professor John Gluck, though, the issue of research on animals comes down to ethics.
Gluck, who is also a professor at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, did research involving primates starting as an undergraduate and directed a primate colony at the University of New Mexico after he arrived in 1971.
He gradually started to question such use of monkeys after long years of working with them.
“I realized I was so stunned by what I saw these animals capable of … that I found it more and more difficult to overcome the resistance to harming innocent, sentient beings for the purpose of human benefit.”
In addition, he said, primates in a lab are in an environment that’s drastically different from how they evolved, and that should raise even more questions about whether experiments on them have any “relevance to the human condition.”
Gluck added that he is not unilaterally opposed to using animals for research – “I’m a practical person, too, when it comes to biomedical needs and research and discovery” – but said there are a slew of tough questions scientists must consider before making an ethical decision to use an animal.
And even after the decision is made and the work completed, researchers are still not off the hook. “I would argue that since we the researchers have made the experimental animals completely dependent on (us) what remains is a moral residual that must be compensated,” he said.
That can be accomplished by working to find alternatives to animal research in the future or by supporting the animals’ move to a sanctuary when the research is completed. For example, some of the chimps subjected to invasive testing at a controversial Alamogordo primate facility have been moved to a sanctuary in Louisiana.
Gluck dealt with his own “moral residue” by seeing to the care of La La and a number of other stumptail macaques housed at the UNM lab after he began the process of shutting it down in the late 1980s.
He said he continued to care for the animals, in “an indoor outdoor zoo-like enclosure” that acted as a sanctuary until they died.
La La, who he described as “beautiful,” lived into her 30s, a ripe old age for a stumptail macaque living in a lab setting.