New lab at University of Windsor investigates alternatives to animal testing

TORONTO — More than 4.3 million animals are used in research in Canada every year — caged, poked and prodded — to help scientists learn more about diseases and explore safe treatments for humans.

A biochemist is trying to change that by launching a lab at the University of Windsor to develop and test alternatives to using animals.

Charu Chandrasekera, executive director of the new facility, sees the opening of the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods (CCAAM) as an important step towards her ultimate goal.

“My dream is to see the end of animal testing in Canada within my lifetime,” she told CTV News.

In a TED talk this past April, Chandrasekera spoke about the history of animal testing, acknowledging that many scientific breakthroughs couldn’t have been made without it, such as “insulin, penicillin and the polio vaccine.”

However, she contended, numerous drugs have been removed from the market due to their lethal effects on humans — after rounds and rounds of testing on animals led researchers to believe they were safe.

Studies have shown that 95 per cent of experimental treatments that work in animals fail when they are introduced to humans in clinical trials, a fact cited on the website for CCAAM. Sometimes drugs that are safe for animals have proven to be not only less effective for humans, but toxic to them.

“There are tremendous differences in the way animals and humans develop diseases and how we react to drugs and chemicals, so there is a major need to develop human-biology-based methods,” Chandrasekera said. She added that scientists also have an “ethical mandate.”

It’s the ethics of animal testing that infuriate Canadian philanthropist Eric Margolis, who says the cost of putting animals through testing is simply too high for those sorts of results.

“Animals burned, scalded, frozen,” Margolis told CTV News. “They have electrodes implanted in their heads, they are poisoned with toxic substances.”

When he was owner of Jameson Laboratories, Margolis banned animal testing in his facilities. Now, he’s helping Chandrasekera look into options for testing that doesn’t involve animals: his foundation donated $1 million to officially fund her lab.

The new lab will develop tests that use human tissue and stem cells to try out drugs and chemicals instead of animals. Their mission, as stated on their website, is to “serve as the Canadian leader and nexus to advance alternatives to animal testing.”

The concept of testing drugs on animals is a longstanding one in the scientific community. Chandrasekera herself used to use rodents in her research into cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

“At the time, I thought it was perfectly normal,” she said. “It is the culture. We use rodents as the gold standard for almost everything in biomedical research and chemical safety testing.”

What changed her mind? She said she “personally experienced firsthand” the struggle of realizing that her work “wasn’t really going to translate effectively to the humans I really wanted to cure.”

Chandrasekera said that although animal testing has “contributed significantly to our understanding of biology,” it is now “time to move beyond that, to really come up systems that will tell us about our (human) biology and how we respond to drugs and chemicals.”

Her way of thinking is part of a global movement hoping to shift scientific testing to a more humane — and potentially, a more accurate — way of getting answers, by thinking outside of the cage.

Animal testing is “a waste of animal lives, of resources, of intellect,” she believes.

“If the scientific community came together and put their minds and their resources and everything together to come up with the next generation of technologies that we need to replace animal testing,” she said, “it would be … a great world.”

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