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Replacing Animal Tests With Stem Cells

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 22 Aug 2010 | comments*Discuss
Animals Animal Testing Stem Cells

Finding a suitable alternative to animal testing is one of the biggest challenges of the research sector. In fact, it's a seemingly formidable one that has left some people with the assumption that animals will remain necessary for scientific research. However, this is not to say that methods can't be refined and improved, which will reduce the number of animals used for testing. In this case, stem cells are proving to be an exciting new way to perform testing, particularly given that they can help us to use fewer animals in the testing process. Better still, they could be far more cost-effective than using animal models of experimentation.

Using Embryonic Stem Cells for Experimentation

An embryonic stem cell is capable of growing and differentiating into a wide variety of different cell types, which can ultimately grow into a human organ. By using in vitro human tissue from stem cells, we have a better ability to assess the toxicity of a substance, particularly in comparison with just one kind of cell type. In this way, we can also obtain a human profile rather than an animal one for the drug. These stem cells can further help us on the drug discovery path. By placing a gene for disease into embryonic stem cells, the cells can be coaxed to develop into diseased human tissues. Then, these tissues can be utilised for drug screening.

Stem cells have already received an enormous amount of attention for their potential in the therapeutic aspect of diseases. However, their potential use as a substitute for animal experimentation holds enormous promise and demonstrates the broad application potential for stem cells. Virtually all of us will take a pharmaceutical drug at some point in our lives. In this way, using stem cells instead of animal models can benefit practically everyone. In contrast, not everyone will require a stem cell therapy, despite the significance of stem cells for those who do suffer from devastating diseases that are helped by stem cell therapies.

Benefits to the Research Sector

Biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies have to test their drugs for toxicity in humans. With animal models, it can be costly and difficult as well as time-consuming. Not only that, but animal models are still different from humans in a number of ways, despite being considered the most similar model to represent humans. By using stem cells for assessing drug toxicity, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies can rapidly test new chemicals and compounds and more readily infer the results to humans. This kind of testing would occur quite early on in the research and development protocol.

Another benefit of stem cell models of testing relates to ethnic diversity. Animal models don't have the ethnic diversity of humans. Since certain ethnic populations have unique health needs and metabolism of drugs, animal models simply can't predict the effect of the drug in an ethnic subpopulation. With stem cells, however, these kinds of predictions could more accurately be made, which means reduced drug side effects and toxicity once a drug is used for human trials and when it hits the market. By using embryonic stem cell lines from a particular ethnic genome, researchers can effectively create an ethnic cell population to assess drug toxicity.

Challenges of Stem Cell Models of Testing

One challenge is that stem cells aren't quite effective enough to actually show how a drug is toxic in the whole system. For example, when a person ingests a drug, an organ can then alter the drug in their system, which ultimately results in a metabolite that is toxic to a different organ. Stem cells can show one specific organ's reaction to a substance but these cells won't show how the entire human system would respond.

As such, stem cells are a viable substitute for animal testing in terms of single organ toxicity. Unfortunately, stem cells can't act as a substitute for assessing a drug's impact on the entire body. Still, embryonic stem cells represent a promising in vitro alternative to animal testing, which is important for reducing animal testing and improving human health.

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