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Animal Testing is so 2014

New technology developments could eliminate the need to test medications on animals, saving money and encouraging new drug development
Former President Shimon Peres gives a DNA sample for research purposes at the GGA laboratory on Monday (photo credit: Yosef Avi Yair Engel/Flash90)
Former President Shimon Peres gives a DNA sample for research purposes at the GGA laboratory on Monday (photo credit: Yosef Avi Yair Engel/Flash90)

The following article is one that sent a shiver up my spine. it speaks of a new technology that will, in the near future, likely supplant the need for animal testing for new medications. The company behind this technology aims to complete a testing system that will emulate 10 organs on a single device by 2017. The intent is to study the effect of a medication not only on a single organ but on the confluence of organs as they naturally exist in our bodies.

Whatever your personal, ethical, religious, or philosophical perspective is on animal testing, there is no question that it is laborious and still an imperfect model for human studies. From my own discussions with colleagues who regularly work with animals for testing purposes, all of them would be more than happy to find a less invasive and pain-causing approach to medical research. From a business and financial point of view [which like it or not is the most powerful argument for change], animal use is expensive and incurs a great deal of bureaucracy and time delays in medical research.

A totally synthetic device that emulates human tissue responses to a medication would allow for far faster and cheaper evaluations of medications. If this business model promises even a 10% reduction in research costs, that would translate into billions of dollars per year. Animals in their cages would be replaced by specialized housing units for these testing devices.

Most likely, the cost reduction will be far more than 10% and will continue to increase as time goes on. As is with so many other technologies, it may literally end up costing pennies to test a medication on a simulated human, in the form of these biochips.

One of the concerns when studying new medications is identifying side effects  that occur in less than one in 10,000 cases. Why this specific number? Because human testing is even more problematic and expensive than animal testing, and collecting together more than 10,000 test subjects and tracking them over time is incredibly expensive and time-consuming. If this new technology would allow for the equivalent type of testing on even larger numbers of cases, all for a fraction of the present cost, the result would be far better medications.

Also, if the cost of testing is drastically reduced, many more medications can be evaluated. One already sees a possibility for multiple startups using very inexpensive biochip testing, for assessing the use and safety of the medication they have designed. While the major drug companies might actually face serious competition from small startups that use this technology, overall, such competition will generate a better product for the general public.

In time, it will be possible to clone full-sized and fully functional organs, along with their blood supply and nerve connections. One can imagine a complete clone of a human, but in miniature, and lacking any connected brain tissue.. While this sounds far more like a Frankenstein project gone awry, it would allow, even more so, for the evaluation of multiple forms of treatment before they are marketed for use with humans.

There will also likely be improved simulations of human physiology entirely contained within a farm of computer servers. Just like one can rent time on Google or Microsoft or Amazon clusters of computers for doing large-scale and intensive computing for relatively little money, the day is coming when a complete simulation of human physiology will be running on an equivalent set of computers. So for anyone in the medical research arena, they will rent time on this simulated human in order to study the effects of medications and even invasive procedures and devices. These simulations will be able to be run millions if not billions of times over and over again, in order to simulate testing on huge numbers of humans. While creating such a simulation is technically far more difficult than creating actual “tissue in a petri dish”, these computer simulations will be developed and likely replace any form of physical testing. The potential at this point is only limited by our imaginations.

Just as we cringe at the idea of a doctor literally sawing off a leg to prevent the spread of infection, people in 100 years from now will cringe at the thought of using animals and humans to test new medications and medical interventions. It may in fact take much less time than 100 years to reach this new medical paradise. Personally, it cannot come too soon.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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