In Vitro Is Not Necessarily Non-Animal

The Boston Globe’s Naomi Aoki wrote an article that is being widely circulated by animal rights and anti-animal rights advocates on the Internet. The article profiled Charles River Laboratories and gave the impression that the company is increasing its efforts at developing and marketing nonanimal tests. The only problem is that one of the most innovative “nonanimal” tests mentioned in the article, is in fact an animal test.

In January 2002, Charles River Laboratories bought a firm called DakDak which performs in vitro testing of sunscreen products. Using an innovative approach, the lab can perform testing of sunscreen products in a day or two that would take up to a year in in vivo models. But in vitro testing is not the same as nonanimal testing, although you would not know that from Aoki’s characterization of DakDak,

In the past five years, the lab animal portion of Charles River’s business has gone from 80 percent to 40 percent. Earlier this month, the firm bought a lab test, called DakDak, that allows researchers to measure how effectively sunscreens prevent skin damage. The test does in days what would take months in animal studies.

. . .

Studying them all [potential compouds] in animals is simply an economic impossibility. Animal tests can take months, even years, and quickly run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Charles River estimates that DakDak can test five or six products for less than half what it would cost to study one product in animals.

But DakDak’s technology is not nonanimal — and, at least in its press releases announcing the acquisition of DakDak, Charles River never claims that it is.

The in vitro test is based on research by skin cancer researchers Eric Bernstein and Jouni Uitto who filed a patent in 1997 for a line of transgenic mice that form the core of the DakDak technology.

Bernstein and Uitto gentically modified the mice so that they carry a promoter found in human beings that produces elastin when people are exposed to sunlight. In the transgenic mice, however, this promoter has been modified to produce an enzyme called CAT (chloramphenicol acetyltransferase).

When the transgenic mice are exposed to sunlight, the promoter kicks into gear and produces CAT. The amount of CAT produced can then be measured as a gauge of how effective a sunscreen product is in preventing exposures to UVB and UVA.

The in vitro model which Charles River Laboratories touts involves taking skin explants from the transgenic mice and exposing the explants to UVB/UVA.

Yes, this is an animal alternative to the extent that skin explants from animals are used rather than whole animals, but the entire process from start to finish is entirely dependent on transgenic mice. Whatever else it is, DakDak’s test is animal testing.

And yet the Boston Globe erroneously bills this sort of test as an example of companies “Evolving away from animal tests.” In case that was not clear enough, the editors added a subhead proclaiming that “Charles River Laboratories shifts to new technologies.”

It is these sort of articles which fuel the nonsensical claims by animal rights activists that animal testing is yesterday’s technology. Hey, Charles River Laboratories is using a sunscreen test that doesn’t use any animals, so why can’t we get rid of all animal testing?

Yes, Aoki includes comments from researchers to the effect that animal alternatives cannot replace animal studies completely, but the reality is that many “animal alternatives” are like this sunscreen test. They might reduce the number of animals killed and return results far faster using in vitro technologies, but they still rely heavily on animals.


Evolving away from animal tests: Charles River Laboratories shifts to new technologies. Naomi Aoki, Boston Globe, February 27, 2002.

In vivo and in vitro model of cutaneous photoaging (U.S. Patent 6,018,098). PharmCast.Com.

Charles River Acquires ‘In Vitro’ Technology Platform. Charles River Laboratories, Press Release, January 14, 2002.

Cat And Mouse Model Human Skin Aging. The Scientist, 12[9]:31, April 27, 1998.

Artificial Corneas on the Horizon

A report in the latest issue
of Science reports that Canadian researchers were able to get human corneal
cells growing on an artificial protein surface for the first time. The
resulting organism was structurally similar to the human cornea and from
initial tests appears to function much like a human cornea.

This is a major advance for
two reasons. First, today the only place to get a new cornea is through
a transplant. Growing artificial corneas in the lab could be a huge boon
in treating vision problems — although any such use would be years off.
Second, because the artificial corneas appear to react exactly as normal
human corneas, they could be used as a substitute for animals in testing
the effect of substances on the eyes.

Alan Goldberg, director of
the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, told WebMD that he was
encouraged by the possibility of the artificial lenses to replace animal
tests, although he cautioned it will still take quite a bit of research
in the near future to establish for certain that tests on the artificial
corneas produce results that are adequate enough to replace animal testing.
“I’m super-encouraged,” he said, “but I’m also saying it’s not there yet.”


corneas may benefit research”
, WebMD, December 9, 1999.

New skin test to reduce animal use

A recently formed interagency governmental
committee approved a new skin test for irritating chemicals that will
reduce, but not eliminate, the number of animals used for such testing.

The new test checks products to
see if they cause contact dermatitis. Currently contact dermatitis tests
use guinea pigs and cost American industry up to $1 billion annually to
perform. The new test uses mice and requires only one-third to one-half
as many animals.

The test also reduces the level
of animal suffering. In the old test, chemicals were repeatedly applied
to guinea pigs several times and researchers would then wait for the animals
to develop skin irritations. The new mice protocol calls for the
application of the chemicals, but after 6 days the mice are killed and
their lymph nodes examined for antibodies indicative of contact dermatitis.

William Stokes of the National
Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and chair of the interagency
committee that gave its approval and passed the test on to the FDA for
formal approval, said the new test combines the best of both worlds.

We think it’s a win-win situation. These new methods typically use
fewer animals, no animals or cause less pain and distress … but they
also incorporate new science and technology to provide more accurate
tests that do a better job of protecting public health.

In an odd move, even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals endorsed the new test.

“We support any new test,”
said Mary Beth Sweetland, PETA’s director of research, investigation and
rescue. “Everything is relative – using a mouse lymph node beats
blinding an animal for months. A skin sensitivity test can last for any
number of hours, weeks or months.”


“U.S. scientists endorse more human lab tests,” Maggie Fox, Reuters,
Sept. 21, 1998.