The coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on individuals around the world, leading to more than 100,000 deaths in the U.S. and more than 385,000 deaths globally. As such, the development of efficient drugs or vaccines to combat COVID-19 is a high priority, and time is of the essence.
A new article in the Archives of Toxicology highlights the need for alternatives to traditional animal models, along with some of the ways in which human-relevant alternatives can accelerate COVID-19 drug and vaccine development.
While many researchers have been quick to use animal models in their efforts to combat COVID-19, there are limitations to that approach. Aside from animal welfare issues, experiments on animals commonly used for this purpose—such as non-human primates or genetically modified animals—put the focus on different species altogether and direct research efforts away from humans. Considering the advancements that have been made with stem cell technology and bioengineering, many opportunities now exist to conduct coronavirus research with human-relevant, animal-free alternatives.
Traditional animal tests also take a long time. The paper notes that “in a worldwide pandemic, speed of drug development carries enormous weight.” Some of the safety tests that are part of the traditional animal-based package take up to two years, not including assessments that take place after those tests are completed. Shortcuts on these kinds of tests have already been taken during the COVID-19 pandemic and this begs the question as to whether these shortcuts, which spare animal lives, will be commonplace after the pandemic. And if not, why not?
So what kind of non-animal models are available for COVID-19 studies? Some research groups are using human organoid or “organ-on-chip” models to learn more about this virus and identify potential therapies for COVID-19. As the coronavirus is widely understood to have a respiratory component, some researchers are using a “lung-on-a-chip” to replicate the human lung and test potential therapies. Researchers are also working with commercially available respiratory tissues that have human relevance to conduct their studies on COVID-19. In silico, computer-based models, are also being used.
In addition to using alternatives to identify new COVID-19 treatments, some researchers are examining whether drugs that have already been approved for other purposes may be successful treatments for COVID-19. Using cell-based alternatives can allow researchers to screen thousands of these drugs quickly. In addition, use of these alternatives provides “much more robust and exacting data than any animal experiment could deliver,” according to the paper’s authors. The alternatives may also be helpful in identifying effective combinations of drugs that can be used as potential COVID-19 therapies.
We will continue to keep you posted on the contributions that animal-free alternatives are making in the fight against COVID-19.
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Source: Busquet, F., et al. “Harnessing the power of novel animal‑free test methods for the development of COVID‑19 drugs and vaccines,” Archives of Toxicology, May 18, 2020.
NAVS illustration: Wyss Institute (chip) /CDC (coronavirus)