VPHi president, Prof Marco Viceconti, was invited to show the potential of the VPH technologies to reduce, refine and replace the use of animal testing
On 6 and 7 December 2016, the European Commission organised a scientific conference in Brussels to engage the scientific community and relevant stakeholders in a debate on how to exploit innovative advances in biomedical and other research in the development of scientifically valid non-animal approaches (alternatives to animal testing). Among the speakers was the VPHi President, Prof. Marco Viceconti from the University of Sheffield who demonstrated the potential of the Virtual Physiological Human in this field.
The conference was announced in the European Commission Communication responding to the European Citizens Initiative “Stop Vivisection” and is one of four actions that should contribute towards the goal of, ultimately, phasing out animal testing. The other three actions are: (1) accelerating progress in the three R’s through knowledge sharing, (2) development, validation, and implementation of new alternative approaches, (3) enforcement of compliance with the three R’s principle and alignment of relevant sector legislation.
During his presentation on the Virtual Physiological Human, Mr. Marco Viceconti’s stated that animals (as well as in vitro models) should only be seen as models. He pointed out that there is a need to establish analogy with the human and a need to be clear about assumptions of the model. Laboratory tests combined with imaging information can be used to model effects in humans that cannot be directly measured. He stated that effectively, in silico technologies may drive a Renaissance of biological research based in physical sciences methods.
MEP Julie Girling (ECR, UK) strongly advocated for alternatives where possible, however she also stated that she is a strong advocate of science-based policy. On non-animal approaches, the Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes is an important starting point, as the EU has spelled out the principle of three R’s and made it a firm requirement. This principle is echoed in the REACH legislation. Obstacles still exist however: i.e. the existence of knowledge gaps and the lack of information. Non-animal tests have been improved in the EU, but they remain novel and unfamiliar to the industry and their use is therefore still limited. MEP Girling also stressed how most funding currently derives from Member States, in this respect Horizon 2020 would open more opportunities and reinforce a more coordinated approach.
Overall, the conference has been perceived positively. However, rather than focusing on a future of non-animal solutions, the conference spent a lot of time trying to fix the wrongs of animal experimentation. The well-substantiated findings that research using animals is failing, frequently unreliable, and often does not generate reproducible results, were acknowledged. However, the solutions proposed focused on boosting the failing system, rather than accepting the fact that a fundamental shift in paradigm is what is truly needed.
On the other end of the spectrum, in protest to the Commission’s event, the European Parliament Group, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) in cooperation with MEPs from minor political parties hosted a counter-conference “Stop vivisection”. While all MEPs present are members of the Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals, none have prominent positions or influence, except for Stefan Eck who is one of the 14 Vice-Presidents of the group. The event was criticised by MEP Françoise Grossetête (EPP, France) for ignoring science and being the “obscurantism hiding in darkness”. This conference, was poorly attended with almost no other MEPs present than the speakers and hosts.
 The three R’s are the guiding principles underpinning the humane use of animals in scientific research i.e.:
· Replace the use of animals with alternative techniques, or avoid the use of animals altogether.
· Reduce the number of animals used to a minimum, to obtain information from fewer animals or more information from the same number of animals.
· Refine the way experiments are carried out, to make sure animals suffer as little as possible. This includes better housing and improvements to procedures which minimise pain and suffering and/or improve animal welfare.