It must have been a moment of artistic madness which led to naming one of the European Union’s biggest projects dedicated to finding alternatives to animal testing, SEURAT-1. (Note:  All references used for this post are listed at the end.  There is a full disclosure statement after the references.)
Georges Seurat, a French post-impressionist painter, left no record that he was ever concerned with animal testing although he could be considered the ‘patron saint of pixels’ due to paintings which consist of dots rather than strokes.
Le Cirque (1891) by Georges Seurat in the Musée d’Orsay [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH; downloaded from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Georges_Seurat_019.jpg
Still, the idea of painstakingly constructing a picture dot by dot seems curiously similar to the scientific process where years of incremental gains in knowledge and understanding lead to new perspectives on the world around us. In this case, the change of perspective concerns the use of animals in testing for toxicological effects of medications, cosmetics, and other chemical goods intended for humans.
Animal testing dates back to back to the third and fourth centuries BCE (before the common era) although the father of vivisection, Galen, a Greek physician, doesn’t make an appearance until 2nd-century CE in Rome. More recently, we have an Arab physician, Avenzoar (Ibn Zuhr), in 12th-century Moorish Spain to thank for introducing animal experimentation as a means of testing surgical procedures.
The millenia-old practice of animal testing, surgical or otherwise, has presented a cruel conundrum. The tests have been our best attempt to save human lives and reduce human misery, albeit, at the cost of the animals used in the tests.
Social discomfort over animal-testing is rising internationally and thankfully, it looks like animal testing is in decline as alternatives and improvements (animal physiology is not perfectly equivalent to human physiology) are adopted. Alternatives and improvements have made possible actions such as the
- European Union’s (EU) March 2013 ban on the sale of animal-tested cosmetics from anywhere in the world; there was an earlier 2009 ban on the sale of animal-tested cosmetics from anywhere in the EU,
- China’s July 2014 announcement that animal-testing for cosmetics produced domestically is no longer required,
- Israel’s 2013 ban on importing and marketing of cosmetics tested on animals,
- India’s bans on cruel animal testing in India’s laboratories (2013) and on importing animal-tested cosmetics (Oct. 2014)
There are also a number of outstanding (as of December 2014) legislative proposals regarding animal-testing and cosmetics in countries such as Australia, Brazil, Taiwan, New Zealand, and the US.
However, cosmetics are only one product type among many, many chemical products. For example, medications, which rely on animal-testing for safety certification. Despite recent victories, the process of dismantling the animal-testing systems in place is massive, complex, and difficult even with support and encouragement from various government agencies, civil society groups, scientists, and various international organizations.
Well-entrenched national and international regulatory frameworks make animal testing mandatory prior to releasing a product into the marketplace. Careful thought, assurances to policy makers and the general public, and confidence that replacement regimes will be equivalent to the old system to the old system of animal-testing are necessary.
Strangely, assuring even sophisticated thinkers can prove surprisingly difficult, David Ropeik, a former Director of Communications for Harvard University’s Center for Risk Analysis and currently an international consultant and speaker on risk analysis, wrote in a Sept. 2014 post for The Big Think about the EU’s 2013 ban on cosmetics testing on animals,
But people use lotions and toothpastes and deodorants and perfumes repeatedly. We expose ourselves everyday to hundreds of human-made chemicals, and some of those substances, which also fall under the European ban on animal testing for cosmetics, have the potential to do deeper damage, like cancer, or reproductive damage to the developing fetus. And there are no reliable replacement tests for those serious outcomes.
This now-banned animal testing for the systemic risks from repeated exposure to these everyday products was also a source of important information on the health effects of industrial chemicals generally. Results from cosmetic testing become part of the library of what we know about how industrial chemicals might harm us, no matter what products they’re in.
So the European community has eliminated a way for science to study the risk of industrial chemicals…because it feels right to consider the rights of animals. [emphasis mine] We have done what feels right, but in the process, without realizing it, we have made it harder to figure out how to keep ourselves safe.
Ropeik doesn’t substantiate his comment about the EU community acting from ‘feelings’ or discuss how current alternatives are inferior to animal testing or offer data about how this ban has made the earth a more dangerous place for humans. Meanwhile, more jurisdictions are limiting or eliminating testing of cosmetics on animals while an international competition which has already developed new techniques is underway to find yet more alternatives. SEURAT-1 the main European Union project, designed to carry out a set of scientific inquiries to facilitate the transition to animal testing alternatives where possible. It is organized around seven interlinked projects (or borrowing from Georges, seven dots):
- SCR&Tox (Stem Cells for Relevant efficient extended and normalized TOXicology): Stem cell differentiation for providing human-based organ specific target cells to assay toxicity pathways in vitro
- Hepatic Microfluidic Bioreactor (HeMiBio): Developing a hepatic microfluidic bioreactor to mimick the complex structure and function of the human liver (liver-on-a-chip)
- Detection of endpoints and biomarkers for repeated dose toxicity using in vitro systems (DETECTIVE): Identifying and investigating human biomarkers in cellular models for repeated dose in vitro testing
- Integrated In Silico Models for the Prediction of Human Repeated Dose Toxicity of COSMetics to Optimise Safety’ (COSMOS): Integrating and delivering of a suite of computational tools to predict the effects of long-term exposure to chemicals in humans based on in silico calculations
- Predicting long term toxic effects using computer models based on systems characterization of organotypic cultures (NOTOX): Developing systems biological tools for organotypic human cell cultures suitable for long term toxicity testing and the identification and analysis of pathways of toxicological relevance
- Supporting Integrated Data Analysis and Servicing of Alternative Testing Methods in Toxicology (ToxBank): Data management, cell and tissue banking, selection of “reference compounds” and chemical repository
- Coordination of projects on new approaches to replace current repeated dose systemic toxicity testing of cosmetics and chemicals (COACH): Cluster level coordinating and support action or this could be called, Administration
As SEURAT-1 nears its sunset date in 2015 (it is a five-year, 50M Euro project started in 2011), there are successes to celebrate. For example, Emma Davies in her article titled, Alternative test data publicly available; ToxBank data warehouse (Sept. 4, 2014 for Chemical Watch) notes that ToxBank, includes data from SEURAT-1’s “gold” standard reference compounds which have documented liver, kidney, and cardio toxicity. As well, data sets from a comprehensive 2012 liver toxicity study supplied by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (the EU’s research hub and laboratory) have been added. ToxBank has also negotiated with Open TG-Gates, a Japanese toxicogenomics data resource and with ToxCast and Tox21, two US high-throughput screening programmes to add their data to the ToxBank data warehouse. Meanwhile, the warehouse’s data is publicly available on request.
COSMOS, the other data-oriented member of the SEURAT-1 cluster, should provide a good starting point for in silico studies (computer simulations) as it now boasts information on some 19,000 cosmetics-related substances, including toxicity data for more than 12,000 studies according to Davies’ article, Critical toxicity pathways at heart of Seurat-1 follow on (Sept. 11, 2014 for Chemical Watch).
While we can take Ropeik’s point that animal testing has been an important element in ensuring drug and chemical safety, the move to limit or ban animal testing for cosmetics has been over 50 years in the making and this current wave of regulatory changes has been approached cautiously. There may be some unforeseen consequences both good and bad to these bans on animal testing but to remain mired in the procedures and processes of the past is to deny an improved future for humans and the animals we have used for testing.
History of animal testing
2013 EU ban ban on animal testing for cosmetics
More legislation on cosmetics testing
EU 2013 one year later
David Ropeik’s credentials and resistance to eliminating animal-testing
Emma Davies, Sept. 4, 2014 article (not behind a paywall)
Emma Davies, Sept. 11, 2014 article (behind a paywall)
Reference to cosmetics ban being over 50 years in the making
The principles of the 3Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) were developed over 50 years ago as a framework for humane animal research.
Johns Hopkins Centre for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT)
Resource list (http://caat.jhsph.edu/resources/) includes (and more):
Full disclosure: (1) SEURAT-1 paid for my flight, lodging, and attendance at WC9, the 9th World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences. (2) I have written about alternatives to animal testing prior to any knowledge of SEURAT-1.