Here at A3 we’re not new to the animal research debate but we don’t feel as if we’re on the front lines either, especially after working along side researchers who get death threats, dangerous mailings, and Molotov cocktails thrown at their cars (see here for other article on animal research). Still, I know that my own personal experience and knowledge allow me to understand that at least for now, research using live animals is necessary in some contexts (like when we study actual behavior) but that technology might offer alternatives in others.
An article in the journal Nature Medicine chronicles recent efforts by governmental agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and advocacy groups are pushing forward with the idea of computer databases that will allow pharmaceutical companies to assess the toxicity of new products early in the development process. The benefit is there for everyone, savings animals who would be used for safety testing while also saving money, and public opinion capital, for pharmaceutical companies that often develop compounds that are too toxic without knowing it until much later in the process.
These in-development database should allow for the comparison of the chemical structure of new compounds with ones that have already been heavily tested (yes, some on animals) in order to assess whether similarities in their structure could predict toxicity. It is possible that one day such alternatives would eliminate a significant portion of the need for animal safety testing while making the manufacturing process simpler for everyone. It’s a win win.
It is important to note though that this progress will not directly impact researchers’ ability to conduct behavioral studies (which many drug abuse studies are) without animals. There’s no reason to believe that at we won’t be able to do something similar at some point in the future, but our ability to model behavior using computers is nowhere near that point right now. Trust me, I want us to get there too.