COVID could spell the end of animal testing as drug makers turn to human organs on microchips


COVID could spell the end of animal testing as drug makers turn to human organs on microchips

10 December 2020
A menagerie of genetically engineered mice, rats, macaque monkeys, rats, ferrets, hamsters, dogs and even horses have been enlisted in the race to find drugs and vaccines to thwart severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). But The animals that are being used might be hindering, rather than helping, the race, they say.

The virulence and highly contagious nature of COVID-19 is demanding a new model of research that bypasses animals, instead using human-biology-based testing. A growing number of scientists suggest that accelerated COVID-19 research is exposing animal modelling for what many have long claimed it to be: a scientific anachronism.

Dr. Thomas Hartung is the director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT), a laboratory for developmental neurotoxicity research based on genomics and metabolomics at Johns Hopkins University. Hartung points to the slow trajectory of drug and vaccine development using animal modelling. Conventional drug development relies heavily on animal testing to understand the molecular mechanisms of disease and potential treatments, helping to explain why it takes more than 10 years to get a medication to market, while vaccines typically take 12 years, says Hartung. Such lengthy timelines translate into a hefty medical bill: roughly $2 billion per drug.

Equally problematic, if not even more eyebrow raising: 95 per cent of new drugs that enter clinical trials don’t make it to the market, according to the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). In other words, the vast majority of new drugs fail once they move into human studies, despite appearing safe and effective in experiments with animals.

In science, as in other areas, necessity is the mother of invention. The rapid acceleration of innovations like three-dimensional human organs on a microchip are being refined. These living organoids are accelerating the development of effective medical advancements for the many virulent maladies afflicting humans, including, most urgently of course, COVID-19.