NAVS is proud of the investment we make in promoting the value of humane science and supporting the development of scientific techniques that can reduce, and possibly replace, the use of animals in experimentation.
Each year, thanks to your generosity and commitment to advancing science without harming animals, we award a grant to the International Foundation of Ethical Research (IFER) to fund Graduate Student Fellowships for the next generation of researchers who are developing and using methodologies that can spare animal suffering.
This week’s Science First highlights the work of one of our current fellowship recipients, Erica Warkus, an M.D./Ph.D. student at the University of Hawaii. Erica saw the advantages to using in vitro models over existing animal models. To that end, Erica, who has recently completed her Ph.D. work, has made great strides in developing a cell-based test to identify drugs that cause birth defects. Her work was recently published in Toxicological Sciences.
Erica’s research examined the effect of fluoxetine, a commonly prescribed antidepressant, on embryonic development. Previous epidemiological studies had suggested a link between the use of this drug by pregnant women and an increased incidence of birth defects. The mechanisms by which this occurs, however, remain elusive.
While others may have opted to carry out studies to learn more about this phenomena in animals, Erica recognized the limitations of that approach.
As Erica noted, “Currently, animal-based tests are the gold standard to assess the developmental toxicity of chemical compounds. However, animal experimentation is costly, labor-intensive, and it poses ethical issues concerning animal welfare, especially given the large number of compounds that need to be tested.”
Rather than conduct unethical and costly experiments on pregnant lab animals, Erica developed an in vitro test using aggregated stem cells, called embryoid bodies, to mimic the process of embryonic development. She exposed these cells to different doses of the antidepressant to better understand whether it affected the process by which physical body structures are formed.
Erica’s studies provided evidence that fluoxetine and one of its major metabolites cause adverse effects. This evidence helped her identify a molecular mechanism by which the toxic effects could be explained.
Importantly, not only do Erica’s studies help animals by reducing their use in developmental toxicity experiments, they also help humans too.
“Tests like this are important,” Erica writes, “because, with a better understanding of the properties of individual medications, physicians can choose the most appropriate options to treat depressed women while minimizing the risk of causing unnecessary birth defects in human babies.”
Through IFER, NAVS is proud to support work like Erica’s which strives to make developmental toxicity research possible without harming animals.