Belgian initiatives boosting animal-free innovation

February 26, 2020 Article BioVox

Animals have been used throughout history to understand human physiology and to resolve scientific questions related to health and disease. Nowadays, however, both scientists and the public are pushing for better options to animal testing, and so increasing efforts are being put into developing and promoting these alternative methods. Two such initiatives are being spearheaded by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB): The Innovation Centre for 3R Alternatives (IC-3Rs) and the RE-Place project.

The history of animal testing

The use of animals has a long history in the evaluation of safety and efficacy of medicines, vaccines and consumer products, for both animal and human health. Nevertheless, there have long been discussions regarding the ethical aspects of using animals in science.

Besides ethical objections, economic and scientific factors also contribute to the pressing need for new non-animal methods. Housing and caring for research animals is not cheap and, although animal models are undoubtedly useful, like all models they also have drawbacks and limitations. All these factors combined are driving the development of alternatives to animal models.

Collaboration, discussions and joint efforts are absolutely the way forward in solving the challenges we face with replacing animals in science.
– Prof. Vera Rogiers, VUB

Unfortunately, eliminating animal testing completely would, at this point in time, be unethical in itself; alternative methods are not yet able to fully replace animal models in safety testing and research. That being said, it is clear that we are moving in the right direction by developing more alternative methods, bringing us closer to this possibility.

The 3Rs principle

In 1959, the 3Rs principle was introduced by scientists William Russell and Rex Burch. They drafted guidelines for the ethical use of animals, describing key strategies to phase out the use of animals in research and testing. The “3Rs” are:

  • Replacement: methods capable to fully replace an animal experiment.
  • Reduction: methods that obtain more data from the same number of animals or obtain an equal amount of data from fewer animals.
  • Refinement: practices that enhance animal welfare e.g. procedures which alleviate pain and distress from an animal during an experiment.

Today, the 3Rs are embedded in the European Legislation. The overall objective is to maintain the same level (or, preferably, to obtain an improved level) of safety and utility, while decreasing the use of animals in research, testing and education. The way to achieve this is by developing and by promoting the use of alternative methods.

Alternative methods put into practice

Many alternatives to animal testing have been developed over the past half a decade. The most well-known examples are models based on the use of human cells and tissues, so called in vitro methods, aiming to mimic true human physiology. Another example is the use of computer techniques (i.e. in silico) which can be applied to predict adverse effects of chemical exposure and to evaluate the safety of new medicines. Collectively, these animal-free methods are known as New Approach Methodologies (NAMs).

Knowledge sharing is one of the key aspects helping us to stimulate the use and further development of new alternative methods.
– Prof. Vera Rogiers, VUB

Due to the challenges of substituting a whole organism with a single laboratory test, a combination of several complementary methods is often required. This set-up is known as an Integrated Testing Strategy and helps researchers to obtain more scientifically reliable results. Other opportunities to reduce the number of laboratory animals include sharing and mutually accepting data between countries and their regulatory agencies. This avoids the unnecessary replication of animal studies. In order to reach the goal of animal-free science, sharing of information on the available NAMs is also crucial.

Networking for a new approach

In 2017, Prof. Vera Rogiers (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) founded the Innovation Centre for 3R Alternatives (IC-3Rs), to increase awareness on the use of NAMs and to strengthen local networking activities. IC-3Rs organises a yearly symposium which brings together young scientists and leading researchers, providing an excellent opportunity to discuss the recent developments regarding the 3Rs.

The most recent symposium was organised in November 2019, with the Belgian Society of Toxicology and Ecotoxicology (BelTox) and the International Society for In Vitro Methods (INVITROM). With the central theme focussing on “Innovative tools for 3Rs testing”, the event highlighted non-animal methodologies for human toxicology, risk assessment and ecotoxicology, with an emphasis on the current status of in vitro and in silico methods and their implementation in legislation.

Read this previous BioVox article about the role of events in creating research connections.

“Knowledge sharing is one of the key aspects helping us to stimulate the use and further development of new alternative methods.” says Prof. Vera Rogiers. In order to encourage and support such communication, she is currently coordinating the RE-place project in collaboration with Sciensano. The aim of the project is to collect existing expertise on the use of NAMs in one central database, thereby making expert knowledge more accessible. The database is publicly available via and presently contains about 110 NAMs.

Sharing knowledge allows researchers to increase the visibility of their work and to connect with peers to exchange personal experience. In addition to increasing the knowledge and use of NAMs, this platform will also undoubtedly facilitate new collaborations. Moreover, access to an up-to-date overview of the available NAMs allows the identification of knowledge gaps, resulting in a more efficient allocation of efforts and future research funding.

It is vitally important that scientists collaborate and share their knowledge to their peers, both for the quality of their research and for the betterment of animal welfare. Prof. Vera Rogiers is a firm believer that: “Collaboration, discussions and joint efforts are absolutely the way forward in solving the challenges we face with replacing animals in science.” She is enthusiastic to continue her work with promoting the use of NAMs through the IC-3Rs and platforms such as the RE-Place database.

This article was guest authored by IC-3Rs and the RE-Place project teams.

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