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Posted: Sep 30, 2013
Replacing animal testing with accurate in vitro innovations
(Nanowerk News) An EU-funded project has successfully established human stem cell-based in vitro tests, which are capable of replicating the development of the human central nervous system. The innovation could lead to the more accurate and efficient testing of drugs, and importantly lead to a move away from animal testing.
The Embryonic Stem cell-based Novel Alternative Testing Strategies (ENSATS) project's objective was to develop a novel toxicity test platform based on embryonic stem cells (ESCs). A proof of concept study demonstrated that compounds causing developmental neurotoxicity were successfully identified in these systems. The breakthrough could accelerate drug development, reduce related R&D costs and propose a powerful alternative to animal tests.
The five-year project was completed at the end of September 2013. A conference was recently held with the European Society for Alternatives to Animal Testing (EUSAAT) Congress in Linz, Austria in order to share the project's major achievements and to discuss possible implications for the future.
Avoiding compounds that cause reproductive toxicity is of fundamental importance for human safety. However, reproductive toxicity testing is also one of the most challenging and expensive fields of toxicology. A significant number of animals are required in drug development - in fact, hundreds of animals are needed to test a single compound.
In order to address this, ESNATS developed a range of toxicity tests using ESCs subjected to standardised culture and differentiation protocols. These different tests cover reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, metabolism and toxicokinetics (the study of what rate a chemical will enter the body and what happens to it once it is in the body). The aim was to develop an "all-in-one" integrated test system.
Importantly, ESNATS proved that these human test systems offer more accurate testing compared to animal tests. Furthermore, the test system developed by the consortium will be useable to evaluate the toxicity of other substances. The goal now is to scale these systems up, in order to enable future industrial use.
With a total budget of €5.5 million and funding support of €11.9 million from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for Research and Technology Development, ESNATS was coordinated by Professor Jürgen Hescheler from the University of Cologne, Germany. It brought together leading European researchers in alternative testing, toxicology, genomics, modelling, and automation. The consortium also included representatives from regulatory bodies, the pharmaceutical industry and ethical advisors to provide guidance and to ensure rapid applicability of the developed test systems.
A recently published briefing paper combined both the ESNATS project's major achievements and future perspectives. Further projects leading on form ENSATS will most likely study a broader range of chemicals in order to optimise the test system. In any case, it is clear that stem cell-based in vitro systems promise to be an accurate, fast and cost-effective tool for identifying toxic compounds.