Safety testing of chemicals without laboratory animals

Testing chemical substances without using animals. It seems a utopia, but a European team is going to develop a way to make this a reality. The RISK-HUNT3R project, led by Leiden professor Bob van de Water, received 23 million euros from the European Commission for this purpose. The project was launched on 1 June.

By 2030, people and the environment in Europe will be free of exposure to harmful substances. At least, if it were up to the European Union’s Green Deal. But how feasible is that? ‘If you wanted to test all existing substances for their toxicity, you wouldn’t even be finished before 2030 if you would use test animals,’ says Bob van de Water. ‘So apart from the ethical aspect, this shows that we need new methods.’

Bob van de Water in his lab

Are test animals effective?

You can also question the effectiveness of laboratory animals, Van de Water points out. ‘Test animals only have a limited resemblance to people. When it comes to drugs, using laboratory animals you only find 70 per cent of the side effects that occur in humans. So you miss 30 per cent. Test animals are therefore not an ideal translation to humans.’ RISK-HUNT3R hopes to develop a sustainable alternative to the testing of chemical substances in the next five years. They focus on substances used in the chemical industry and products such as pesticides and cosmetics.

Coordinated from Leiden

The project is substantial: 37 leading organisations from 9 countries are participating. In addition to being a researcher in the project, Van de Water is also the coordinator. ‘I oversee who is doing what and how that all fits together. I also ensure that we achieve our goals and that we can translate our results to a broad audience. The translation to the European safety regulators and industry is also important so that they can apply our methods in practice.’

From petri dish to humans

Van de Water explains how they intend to achieve their goal of non-animal experiments. ‘There are a great many methods available in the lab. We are going to investigate how you can link these lab methods to predict whether a substance is safe for humans. In Leiden, we use cultured mini-kidneys and mini-livers for this, which we study with advanced microscopes, for example in our Cell Observatory.’

The team will then validate their methods using existing medicines. Van de Water: ‘Medicines can be used as a reference because they have always been tested on humans. We can use the data from clinical studies of medicines to test whether our methods can be translated one-to-one to humans.’ Ultimately, the international team hopes to prove within five years via several case studies that their idea is applicable and can therefore change the regulations for testing substances.

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