Accelerating the Transition to Animal Free Innovation

17 Nov 2021
Yesterday, panellists discussed how to transition European science to non-animal research and testing methods during a Special Session of the Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals co-organized by Eurogroup for Animals and the Humane Society International. This event was organized in response to the European Parliament’s adoption of a resolution asking the European Commission to draw up an action plan “to accelerate the transition to innovation without the use of animals in research, regulatory testing and education” on 15th September.

The roundtable discussion started with Prof. Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers from the Radboud University congratulating the MEPs for adopting the resolution and underlying that the European Parliament’s recommendations link many policy areas to achieving a transition to animal-free research, which she believes is key to the success of the plan, especially in the context of the Green Deal. Dr. Kirsty Reid from the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) highlighted the efforts made by the pharmaceutical industry to achieve a steady decrease in animal use (between 30 and 70% per company), in a context of rising investment in Research & Development. She also emphasized that the industry works collaboratively to achieve these results. Asked about reduction targets to reduce animal use, Prof. Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers acknowledged that they could be useful to stimulate change, but warned that they are never enough and that the action plan will need to be designed in a smart way to enable action and transformative change. Prof. Beatriz Silva Lima from the University of Lisbon was cautious on the issue of targets and timelines as predictions are hard to make and will depend on the strategy adopted. She added that there is a need to use the knowledge obtained through investments already made by the Commission and that one of the task force’s role will be to come up with a strong plan laying the groundwork on the new paradigm within 5 or 6 years.

The discussion then moved on to the topic of new technologies and funding. Dr. Thibault Honegger, the CEO of NETRI, an SME manufacturing organs-on-chips, described how these devices can replicate human diseases, for instance to study Parkinson’s disease, a condition cured on animal models many times but never on humans due to the lack of translational value of the models. He explained how organs-on-chips and human stem cells can replicate some aspects of Parkinson’s to provide better models for pre-clinical testing. Prof. Beatriz Silva Lima pointed to some specific examples where non-animal strategies have been used in drug discovery in areas where animal models were failing, for instance, cystic fibrosis. Dr. Kirsty Reid agreed that 3D models and organs-on-chip are rapidly evolving and promising tools to recapitulate human physiology. She argued that Horizon Europe has a role to play for funding these kind of technologies - both research and toxicity testing. She also would like to see regulators showing more confidence in accepting these technologies and announced that the EFPIA is committed to funding them through the Innovative Health Initiative. Dr. Thibault Honegger agreed on the need for funding but also underlined that it will be essential to bring stakeholders together around the table, including SMEs, pharmaceutical companies and regulators to agree on the level of evidence needed to accept these technologies. Prof. Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers further commented that we need a new paradigm and a new science to replace animal use and improve health research and agreed that every stakeholder needs to be around the table. She also argued in favour of flexible timelines to replace animal experiments.

Issues related to education and regulations, which were extensively mentioned in the resolution voted by the European Parliament, were then addressed by the panelists. Prof. Beatriz Silva Lima gave her views as an academic teaching in universities and said that a lot is being done already in terms of using in-vitro methods, 3D models and, for the wealthiest centers, organs-on-chips. However, journals keep asking for animal experiments to ‘confirm’ data obtained from non-animal methods which is something that needs to be changed in her views. Dr. Thibault Honegger alerted that the US already has an advance on the EU in supporting new technologies and have set-up task forces to modernize research. But he also said that Europe, with its vast pharmaceutical sector and technological and scientific know-how, could also achieve this if reforms are made. He gave the example of biobanks and standardization of organs-on-chips. Dr. Kirsty Reid agreed with Thibault that decision makers in Europe need to be more focused on innovation for the sake of the EU’s strategic autonomy. She also underlined how EFPIA’s members are thriving to use innovative methods and mentioned several initiatives to improve the uptake of non-animal methods, for instance from the European Medicine Agency.

Prof. Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers concluded by saying that the relationship between human and animals is evolving and current discussions are part of this larger trend. In her opinion, some animal testing could also be made redundant by changing our lifestyles. On education she highlighted the need for students to be able to study without using animals.

The panellists each offered some concluding remarks summarizing their views, before the Q&A session and the closing remarks by MEP Anja Hazekamp, President of the Intergroup on Animal Welfare and Conservation of Animals.