Pushing For Animal Replacement In The Antibody Industry
The use of animals in medical research and cosmetics testing is still a mostly hidden phenomenon, but in recent years it has gained international public attention. While some companies and research facilities have already discontinued their use of animals, others maintain the guise of taking animal welfare seriously by putting “animal friendly” labels on their products.
But unless these organizations are recognized by the Leaping Bunny Program—which has defined the only international standards for animal friendly products—their labels carry no weight. Without the Leaping Bunny Logo, animal friendly products are nearly impossible to identify because different countries and continental bodies enforce varying regulations for animal testing.
One little-known use of animals occurs in the $80 billion dollar antibody testing industry. Companies in this industry use animals to create “monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies” that are then used in a variety of tests, including monitoring infectious diseases and fertility and detecting contaminants in our food, to name just a few.
This study takes a close look at the issue of antibody production in the E.U. and its impact on animals. The E.U.’s Directive 2010/63/EU mandates the replacement, reduction, and refinement (the 3Rs) of animals in science. Currently, animals are used in the antibody production process. The molecules that antibodies are designed to detect are injected into an animal many times, creating a hyperimmune response (think allergies, which are brought on when the body overreacts to something in the environment). Only after this phase of the antibody production process does testing shift to in vitro (i.e., “test tube”) methods. Thus, the Directive’s ultimate aim of replacing needless animal use in testing “is not achieved.”
The authors point out that the actual number of animals used to produce antibodies in the E.U. is unknown, buried in other statistics that are unevenly collected and categorized. But the numbers are unjustifiably high considering that technological advancements in antibody development over the last 20 years have led to sophisticated animal-free production methods. Sadly, these methods are not being readily adopted by most researchers.
From this position, the paper delves into a technical discussion of various “animal-friendly affinity reagents” (AFAs)—antibodies developed without animals—that could be used in antibody-based tests. They also recommend an immediate shift in the way applications to do this type of testing/production are approved and how. They claim that researchers’ failure to adopt AFAs is “built on the foundations of misconception” and that the technology has advanced such that “the antibodies produced by these methods are functionally indistinguishable” from animal-derived versions. They recommend a seven-point action plan that outlines in detail how AFAs can help keep antibody production high while also adhering to the E.U. directive on replacements.
For advocates, it’s a familiar refrain: “Despite the emergence of better-quality in vitro technologies to tackle a problem that continues to be overlooked, obsolete animal-based antibody production methods persist.” Fortunately, the existence of this study and the strong call that it makes for a shift in how antibodies are produced is an encouraging step. Though advocates cannot intervene directly in this process, they can support these kinds of initiatives through awareness campaigns.
They can also continue to place pressure on the scientific community to adopt animal-free testing methods. The authors here seem intent on leading not only an ethical but a technical discussion about the issues related to antibody production that should benefit animals greatly in the long term. Advocate support could play a key role in this effort.