The Promises and Limitations of Animal Alternatives in Medical Research

In 1997 an alternative to animal testing for certain skin tests hit the market. The procedure — which uses lab-grown human skin samples — is beginning to increase in popularity with sales of the product growing by 40 percent per year.

On the one hand, this sort of in vitro test has a number of advantages to whole animal tests. They tend to be cheaper and faster than in vivo animal models. Animal rights activists like to pretend that animal research persists largely for economic reasons, but in fact any animal alternative that speeds the time it takes to get a product to market will find a ready market.

On the other hand, unlike the animal rights activists, those who develop and use such animal alternatives also recognize that they have inherent limitations. Technology Review quotes Charles Hewitt, director of surgical research for Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, noting that although he uses the bioengineered skin in his research, “We can’t get all the responses we need to test just from our model.”

In fact, as Technology Review notes, often these “animal” alternatives in fact end up being alternatives to traditional human clinical trials. A major use of bio-engineered skin, for example, is to screen compounds before sending them to human clinical trials.

Researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, for example, evaluate drug under consideration for nasal use. They used to send such drugs directly to clinical trials, but now first use tests on the bio-engineered skin to screen out drugs likely to fail in clinical testing, so that only the most promising drug candidates are subjected to expensive clinical testing in human beings.

Animal rights activist claim that all animal tests could be replaced with alternatives tomorrow, but the reality is that a mix of human and animal, in vitro and in vivo tests and experiments will form the foundation of medical research for the forseeable future.


Saving skin. Alan Joch, Technology Review, February 11, 2002.

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