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Science Comes to the Rescue of Lab Rats

Scientists at Tel Aviv University are bioengineering tissues that can take the place of lab rats, saving untold lives.

One of PETA’s more outré facets is its staunch opposition to animal testing, especially that done in a regulatory capacity. PETA president Ingrid Newkirk has been quoted saying, “Even if animal research resulted in a cure for AIDS, we’d be against it.”

A new study from Tel Aviv University should give the organization’s supporters something to cheer about: It’s possible that animal testing, which is required for health and medical products, could be done using tissue generated from stem cells (hold off for a second, other pressure groups) and not living creatures.

The research by professor Amit Gefen of Tel Aviv University could put lab rats out of work (and harm’s way).

His investigation of fat cells, published in Tissue Engineering, suggests that tissue needed for experiments can be produced using fat, skin, bone and muscle cells. Gefen uses adult rat stem cells to create the tissues he needs for his own work on the mechanical properties of pressure ulcers.

He argues that using engineered tissues might even be more efficient than using those from living animals. The model he and his team have created is very reliable, he says, and he predicts that as few as 5 percent of the animals used in labs today will need to be sacrificed in the future.

“Drugs make our lives better, and basic science is needed to push new drugs through clinical trials,” Gefen observed in a release. “But there is no doubt that an untold number of animals are sacrificed in the laboratory setting — both in basic research and in applied conditions when testing particular molecules.”

He is currently working to develop a new tool that investigates fat accumulation in cells and weight loss drugs. The devices he has built so far include one that tells doctors the amount of stress placed on a person’s foot, buttocks or other soft tissues. Another measures the amount of sensation remaining in a diabetic limb.

Gefen says his team can now build a number of simplified living tissues “quite readily” and keep them alive. They are genetically identical to each other (and similar to the biological tissue of the animal they come from) and allow environmental factors to be well-controlled, making it easier for scientists to reproduce their experiments than it is when they use live animals.

He hopes that one day, models can be created based on human tissue, but acknowledges that it may take years to make this a reality.

Still, his research thus far suggests that animal rights activists might not have to choose between lab rats and sick kids after all.