Mario Rothbauer (c) TU Wien
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Medical research has a long tradition when it comes to testing on animals. Apart from the ethical problem, animal experiments also lack reliability. Mice do not always react to diseases and drugs in the same way as humans do. Another example – chocolate is toxic to dogs, explains project assistant Mario Rothbauer from the Cellchip Group at TU Vienna. Moreover, animal experiments aren’t exactly consistent. Slight changes in the housing and care of the animals can have a major impact on the ultimate results.

Rothbauer and his team are committed to alternative, animal-free medical research. The method is based on simulating human organs under controlled conditions in a biochip. In these so-called organ-on-a-chip systems, data is collected that cannot be measured in a laboratory animal. Furthermore, this approach is easier to manage and is more reliable.

Animal-free medical research

The biochip contains tissue types that are relevant to a specific medical issue. In the case of arthritis, for example, proliferative tissue may be removed from the joint and used for simulation in the biochip. A few square millimeters of tissue are sufficient. This allows for therapies to be precisely adapted to patients and should lead to a new form of precision medicine.

Rothbauer and his colleagues hope to offer more than just ethical and precise alternatives to animal experiments. They are hoping to completely dispense with substances derived from animal products. To Rothbauer, opting for animal-free medicine is a question of how to deal with resources. Plus whether you are for or against animal suffering. He also sees this as a cultural change. Quote: “Standards change when societies change.”

His project has now been awarded a Herbert Stiller Prize by Doctors Against Animal Experiments for its use of the 3D-Synovium-on-a-chip as a disease model for rheumatoid arthritis. The prize is worth €20,000.

Mario Rothbauer in an interview with Innovation Origins:

Animal experiments are still the standard in medicine. Yet the cosmetics industry is already dropping animal testing. What does this mean?

You have to take a more in-depth look at the problem: The industry is always guided by existing legislation and corresponding regulations. If animal testing is legally required, it will continue to be used in practice. That is a very straightforward principle.

The legal situation in the cosmetics industry is different from how medicine deals with it. In the United States, animal testing for cosmetics is generally not legally required. The European Union banned animal testing for the cosmetics industry back in 2013.

The EU has invested large sums in the Human Avatar project and wants to bring about a fundamental shift towards a sustainable healthcare system. But we are still at the very beginning of this transformation.

What is the current situation in non-animal-based medical research?

The current situation in non-animal-based medicine is complicated. A great deal is still being done using animal models in basic academic research. When it comes to obtaining approval for medicines, animal experiments are considered indispensable because at present they are still mandatory.

The ban on animal experiments in the cosmetics industry was the first step in the right direction. For the first time, this is a ban and no longer a directive. In Austria, animal testing is not allowed anymore if there is an alternative available. But so far, no animal experiment has been rejected in spite of the availability of alternative models. We need clear legislation.

What problems still need to be overcome?

Animal experiments are extremely popular in medical research. If you bring in non-animal-based research, you are subject to a great deal of criticism at first. Most medical universities have animal testing facilities and also use these for basic research.

As long as the laws in each country do not change, the industry will not change a thing. Animal-free alternatives will only be held on file – pending the prospective date in the distant future when a ban does comes into effect. This is a political challenge and we all know that political processes are extremely slow.

Another aspect is the pressure that there is to publish in academic journals. Publications are considered currency and are necessary when it comes to obtaining third-party funding. Success needs to be measurable for optimal career advancement. Even though it has been criticized for decades, the most common parameter for measuring the quality of research is still the journal impact factor. This is a figure that’s calculated to reflect the influence of a scientific journal. Data and studies based on animal experiments are welcome in the most influential journals such as Nature. Many academic journals of the same stature even insist on the comparison of in vitro models with in vivo models.

How is your project different from others?

Our project has the stipulation that it must be free of animal experiments. Both the model itself and all analyses related to the model. This isn’t that easy. As sera inhibitors, collagen monomers or antibodies used in imaging are all derived mainly from animals. Nevertheless, we will definitely not use these types of substances in our project. This is a huge challenge at times. Fortunately, there are some excellent artificial alternatives or substances that can be obtained from human blood.

What problems does your project address – and what problems do you still have to solve before you can achieve what you are aiming for?

We are working on a human model as an alternative to animal experiments. Not only that, we are also refraining from using any other animal parts in medical experiments. By doing this, we are instrumental in making organ-on-a-chip systems more relevant to human diseases. After all, humans do not have calf serum in their blood nor do we have mouse growth factors in our tissue.

Actually, we do work with biological waste. When tissue is removed from a human joint, it is disposed of – or we use it. It is important to handle available resources as carefully as possible.

They say that at least some fields of medical research could be carried out without animal experiments. What is this dependent on?

It depends on to what extent legislators and industry are willing to invest the necessary sums into the development of alternatives to animal models.

Another important consideration would be to revise education. University graduates must be informed in detail about the alternatives to animal testing. I would like to see compulsory courses for students from all relevant fields of study – especially at medical and life science universities in Austria.

The Technical University of Vienna has addressed this issue with an important educational focus in the form of five voluntary courses. Unfortunately, this is still unique in Austria. So far, universities have only taught the advantages of animal models and the inadequacies of outdated alternatives such as two-dimensional cell cultures. So it is not surprising that few changes are taking place 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 as they do not adequately simulate complex biological processes. How do you view that?

It is important to define in advance how complex a model must be in order to answer a specific medical question. In non-animal-based research, we can learn a lot about diseases from tissue extracted from patients. We are able to apply these findings from the patient directly to the alternative model. For example, if the combination of three cell types do not have sufficient relevance for a particular problem, we can then add different functional cell types until the system is complex enough to be able to answer the problem. It definitely will be necessary to add critical functional cell types and biochemical processes to the alternative system for every problem and disease until it can adequately replicate the biological process.

Thank you for the interview.

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Skin On A Chip – Research without animal experiments