Medical research has a long tradition in animal testing. In addition to ethical issues, animal experiments also lack reliability. Mice do not always respond to diseases and medicines as humans do. For example, chocolate is toxic to dogs, explains Mario Rothbauer, a project collaborator Cellchip Group at the Vienna University of Technology. In addition, animal experiments are difficult to replicate. Small changes in the attitude and treatment of animals can have a major impact on the end results.
The Rothbauer team strives for alternative animal-free medical research. The method is based on simulation of human organs under controlled conditions in a biochip. In these so-called body-on-chip Systems are collection data that cannot be measured in a laboratory animal. In addition, this approach is more controlled and reliable.
Animal-free medical research
A biochip represents tissue types that are relevant to a particular medical problem. For example, in the case of arthritis, proliferative tissue can be removed from the joint and used for simulation in a biochip. A few square millimeters of tissue is enough. In this way, therapies can be precisely adapted to patients and create a new form of precision medicine.
Rothbauer and his colleagues do not just want to offer ethical and more accurate alternatives to animal experiments. They want to completely abstain from substances extracted from animal products. For Rothbauer, the decision in favor of an animal-free drug is a decision about how resources are used – and whether it is for or against animal suffering. He also sees it as a cultural change. Quote: "Norms change as societies change."
His project 3D synovium on a chip as a model of rheumatoid arthritis disease is now out of the club Animal Testing Doctors with one Herbert-Stiller Award excellent. The prize was awarded with € 20,000.
Mario Rothbauer in an interview:
Animal experiments are still standard in medicine. Cosmetic development already works without animal testing. How can we understand this?
You need to look at the problem a little more differentiated: Industry is always based on current law and the resulting requirements. If animal testing is required by law, it will continue to be conducted. This is a very simple principle.
In the cosmetic industry the law is different than in medicine: United States Testing animals for cosmetics is generally not required by law. European Union banned animal testing for the cosmetics industry in 2013.
There are also changes in the field of medicine: the EU has large sums in the project Human avatar invests and wants to launch a paradigm on a sustainable healthcare system. But we are still at the very beginning of this development.
What is the status quo in animal-free medical research?
The situation in animal-free medicine is complicated. There is still a lot of work being done on animal models in basic academic research, and in the case of drug approvals, animal experiments are still important because they are prescribed.
The magic of animal testing in the cosmetics industry was the first step in the right direction. This is the first time a ban, not an offer. In Austria, animal testing is no longer allowed if there is an alternative. But no animal experiments have been rejected so far – despite the development of alternative models. It needs clear legislation.
What are still insurmountable problems?
Animal experiments are extremely popular in medical research. If you come up with animal-free research, you are initially heavily criticized. Most medical universities have animal testing barns and use them for basic research.
Until the laws in individual countries change, the industry will change nothing. The alternative to animals is only kept in evidence – for a potential deadline in the distant future when the ban will take effect. This is where politics is needed and we all know that political processes are very slow.
Another aspect is the pressure of academic publication. Publications are the currency and required to obtain funds from a third party. For optimal career development, success must be measurable. Although it has been criticized for decades, it is still the most common measurement parameter for research quality magazine influence factor, This is a calculated number whose quantity reflects the influence of a scientific journal. In the most influential magazines like nature data and studies based on animal experiments are welcome. Many equivalent journals even require comparison with in vivo models in in vitro models.
How is your project different from the others?
Our project requires that it does not include animals – both the model itself and all model-specific analyzes. This is not so simple, as blocking sera, collagen as a building material or antibodies for visualization are generally of animal origin. We will definitely do without such substances in our project. That's a big challenge sometimes. Fortunately, there are great artificial alternatives or substances that can be obtained from human blood.
What problems does your project solve – and what problems do you still have to solve to get there?
We are developing a human model as an alternative to the animal experiment. More than that, we do not enjoy all the other animal ingredients used in medical trials. That's the main contribution body-on-chip Make systems more relevant to human diseases. After all, humans do not have a body calf in serum in the blood or mouse growth factors in our tissues.
We actually work with bio-waste. When tissue is removed from the human joint, it is discarded – or used. It is important to treat the agents as carefully as possible.
They say that in at least some areas medical research could be possible without animal testing. What does it depend on?
It depends on the extent to which legislators and industry are willing to invest appropriate amounts in developing alternatives to animal models.
Another important factor would be updating classes. University graduates must be informed in detail of alternatives to animal experiments. I would like to offer a compulsory course for students of all relevant branches of study – but especially at the medical and CV universities in Austria.
The Vienna University of Technology has given this subject a significant emphasis in teaching five elective courses. Unfortunately, this is still unique in Austria. So far, only the benefits of animal models and the disadvantages of obsolete alternatives, such as two-dimensional cell cultures, have been taught at universities. It is therefore not surprising if little changes are made in the minds of the future intellectual social elite.
There are also doubts about animal-free research. It is said that cell cultures and computer models cannot replace animal experiments because they do not reproduce complex biological processes. How do you feel about this?
It is important to pre-define how complex a model must be in order to answer a particular medical question. In animal-free research, we can learn a lot about diseases from extracted patient tissue. We can apply patient findings directly to an alternative model. For example, if a combination of three cell types is not sufficient to be relevant to a particular problem, we can add various functional cell types until the system is complex enough to answer the question. It will certainly be necessary for every problem and disease to extend the alternative system to critical functional cell types and biochemical processes until it sufficiently replicates the biological process.
Thanks for the interview.
Skin On A Chip – Animal-free research