Rats, mice, rabbits and other animals have long played a critical role in evaluating the safety and effectiveness of drugs prior to the first clinical trials. Some scientists are nevertheless trying to spare these animals by replacing them with virtual subjects.
About 60,000 animals would be used each year around the world for studies and tests. These experiments on living beings raise ethical questions because of the animal suffering inflicted, even though the results obtained on animals are not necessarily transposable to humans.
To get around the problem of animal suffering, a team from Oxford University (UK) recently developed a computer simulation that can predict whether or not drugs are toxic to the heart. Their software, “Virtual Assay”, proposes a modeling of the human heart cells and makes it possible to eliminate from the outset drugs toxic for the heart, without the use of animal tests.
Specifically, this new computer model predicted whether a drug or compound could cause arrhythmia – an irregular heartbeat – in 89% of the time. Similar tests were performed on cardiac cells taken from rabbits: these tests were effective only 75% of the time. These results, published last September in Frontiers in Physiology, have also enabled researchers to win an international award, the NC3Rs award, awarded by the National Center for the Replacement Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research, a British institution that aims to reduce the use of animals in laboratories.
The lead author of this study, Elisa Passini, a researcher at Oxford’s computer science department, told Gizmodo that these new models could one day save many animals, avoiding killing them in the name of science. “The current strategies for evaluating the cardiotoxicity of drugs involve a combination of preclinical studies using various animal species,” she says. “Including rats, mice, rabbits, dogs and pigs. This screening phase can easily exceed the use of 60,000 animals per year, and this is where our models could play a major role in replacement. ”
These new virtual tests seem more effective than the tests on animals. It remains to be seen whether this option could be extended to all types of tests. These same researchers are starting to conduct virtual studies in the areas of pain research and type 2 diabetes.