I've just been reading some information published by Animal Aid, the UK's largest animal rights group, and was surprised to see that thousands of mice are being poisoned each year in order to test the safety of Botox. For anyone who doesn't know, Botox is a drug that is used to remove wrinkles by temporarily paralyzing facial muscles.
During what are known as LD50 toxicity tests, groups of mice are injected with various dilutions of the drug in order to determine the dose that will kill half the mice in that group. While they are waiting to learn their fate, the animals that have been injected are said to suffer symptoms including impaired vision, paralysis of the body, and paralysis of the diaphragm, which leads to death by suffocation. For each batch test, at least 100 mice are poisoned and observed for a period of 3-4 days.
Although these details may sound gruesome, animals still have a vital role to play in the development and safety testing of any medical treatments, which, technically speaking, includes Botox, as it does have a limited number of medical uses in addition to its cosmetic ones.
In parallel, however, researchers are currently hoping to replace animal-based experiments with in vitro tests based on human cellular assays, and the latest results in this area look very promising. Better still, not only are these innovative research techniques helping to produce viable alternative to animal testing, in many cases they are more cost-effective and deliver more useful results as well.
Dr. Ann-Sofie Albrekt is currently working in a research group headed by Associate Professor Malin Lindstedt at Lund University's Department of Immunotechnology, which is headed by Professor Carl Borrebaeck. Although she is not studying Botox in particular, Dr Albrekt is nonetheless interested to find out what the human mechanisms of action are for various chemical compounds. In her view, it is now possible to find a reliable, accurate and cost-effective alternative to animal testing for this purpose.
According to Dr Albrekt, not only would an in vitro alternative to these animal tests improve the reliability and accuracy of the results delivered, but they would also correlate more closely to human reactivity. Already, new insights in this area have led to several in vitro tests, some of which are now being reviewed by the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM) as possible alternatives to animal testing. Professor Lindstedt's group has the GARD test, for example, that is based on genomics data.
However, the amount of data created by the gene expression studies that form the basis of this type of research is enormous, making it difficult to derive any real biological meaning from these findings unless sophisticated data algorithms are used to help interpret this data effectively. As such, a new approach to data analysis is needed here in order to gain the maximum benefit from these studies.
Fortunately, the latest generation of bioinformatics software is now so powerful that it enables scientists to analyse very large data sets very easily by using a combination of statistical methods and visualisation techniques such as Heatmaps and Principal Component Analysis (PCA). This type of software works by projecting high dimensional data down to lower dimensions, which can then be plotted in 3D on a computer screen and rotated manually or automatically and examined by the naked eye. As a result, researchers can now easily analyse their data in real-time, directly on their computer screen, even if they are not expert statisticians or mathematicians.
For scientists that are hoping to develop in vitro tests as an alternative to animal testing, the ability to visualise data in this way is extremely useful. As humans, we are all used to interpreting 3D pictures in our environment, and so our brain is able to find structures in complex 3D figures very quickly. As a result, it's no wonder that a 3D presentation of the complex mathematical/statistical coherences in these studies makes it much quicker and easier for researchers to interpret this data.
This novel approach to data analysis will continue to play an important role in the research community's efforts to find a reliable in vitro alternative to animal testing. As a result, not only will these findings contribute to the reduction in the number of animals required for safety testing, but they will also pave the way for the establishment of more accurate tools for product development in the future.