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When professor Vera Rogiers began her career, animal testing was standard practice. That there are now alternatives is largely down to her. The fame of ‘her’ department at VUB reaches across borders. This is a portrait of a pioneer.
Text: Anja Otte
Photo: Saskia Vanderstichele
Vera Rogiers began her search for alternatives to animal testing in the 1980s, when the subject was still in the dark ages. With limited means, but with plenty of enthusiasm and perseverance, she constructed a research department that now has 32 members. Her international reputation is down to a combination of ground-breaking research and specialised knowledge about cosmetics. Her research has been honoured many times, and the highest circles of European legislation, industry and the animal welfare sector come to her for advice.
After Rogiers received her pharmacy diploma in Ghent, she saw an advert for VUB. “That’s how I ended up here. And I’ve never regretted it. I have always felt at home here. Nobody has ever favoured me, but nobody has ever worked against me. I’ve done everything under my own steam.”
Cosmetics to earn a crust
After her doctorate, Rogiers chose to study toxicology, the science that studies the effects of poisonous substances on the body. “Professor Antoine Vercruysse asked me if I was interested in post-doc research into toxicological alternatives to animal testing. Animal testing was already becoming controversial in the 1980s, but there weren’t yet any scientifically grounded alternative methods.
In 1960, the philosophers Russell and Burch came up with the three Rs. Reduction: if it’s possible to use fewer animals, then use fewer animals. Refinement: if you must work with animals, do it in a more humane way. And Replacement: if it can be done without animals, then do it without animals. The three Rs became the basis for a chunk of European legislation. (Continue reading below the photo)
Rogiers was struggling with another problem, namely a lack of budget. To bring in money, she set up the Intensive Course in Dermato-Cosmetic Sciences, with dermatologist Diane Rosseeuw and biochemist André Barel, which is still highly renowned around the world. A university course about cosmetics, which was soon offered in French and then in English, was unique in Europe. The study of cosmetics is now obligatory in pharmacy training.
While Rogiers initially taught cosmetics just to earn a crust, she became more and more renowned for it. European legislation had serious consequences for the industry: since 2013, animal testing for cosmetics has been completely banned. Rogiers’ two domains, alternative methods and cosmetics, came together perfectly, with her at the centre. Anyone seeking an expert came straight to her.
Growing research material
What alternative methods exist? Rogiers distinguishes three subsections, which can’t exist by themselves but through intelligent combination can provide the necessary weight of evidence. The first is called in chemico: chemical tests that tell us about the properties of a substance. The second, in silico, is about what we can find out from modelling, and by ‘read across’ we can use what is already known about similar substances to those that are being studied. Results from animal testing and tests on humans, epidemiological studies and other literature can also provide knowledge.
Rogiers calls the third subsection, in vitro, the most important: “animal or human tissue that we grow in laboratory conditions. In the beginning we isolated cells from animals, but we’ve learned that this is an unnecessary step. Now we grow human cells, in particular liver cells. The biggest difficulty with this is that cells in culture very quickly lose their liver-specific properties.”
Alternative methods save animals’ lives, but they also have other advantages. “On a cellular and molecular level, we’re looking for what’s really happening in people. With animal testing, you’re stuck describing what you observe, while we progress mechanistically. It also leads to lots more reasoning.
“Descriptive toxicology has always maintained that results from animal testing were not applicable to humans. From everything that’s been published, we now know that 60% of what we do to animals is not relevant to humans. That’s why the medicines industry is now interested in alternative methods. What began as concern for animal welfare and was developed for cosmetics is now finding its way into medicine and other areas.”
Rogiers emphasises that in-vitro research is not always possible. There have been successes with local toxicity, such as with the skin and eye, but in terms of systemic toxicity, alternative methods are still taking baby steps. It’s not possible to reproduce everything that happens in the body in a petri dish. How does the body take substances in, how does it convert them, how does it distribute them around the body, are toxic substances excreted or stored? And the dangerous effects on organs such as heart, live, kidneys, brain and lungs are extremely difficult to determine.
Respect for life
In 1985, Professor Rogiers won the FISEA prize for her efforts in finding alternatives to animal testing. Then-rector Silvain Loccufier made a remarkable speech during the prize-giving ceremony. “He called for more respect for life. Not just for animals, but also for plants. All the newspapers wrote about it. The fact that we use as few lab animals as possible fits perfectly with the ethical profile of VUB. Really, over the years we haven’t made enough of this.
Animal testing – a short history
1960: Russell and Burch came up with the three Rs: Reduction, Refinement, Replacement.
1986: a European directive called on member states to encourage research into alternative methods and reduce the use of lab animals as much as possible. Establishment of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods; Rogiers is a member of the scientific committee. The US, Canada and Japan follow Europe’s directive.
2003: European ban on the use of animal testing for cosmetics, with deadlines of 2009 (for testing) and 2013 (for production and sales)
2007: Introduction of REACH, an EU regulation to better protect human health and the environment against the risks of chemicals. REACH encourages alternative methods for risk-assessment of substances.
2017: New innovation centre for alternative methods. On 25 September 2017, under the impetus of Vera Rogiers’ research group, an innovation centre was launched with the aim of strengthening research into alternative methods. The Innovation Centre 3Rs builds on 25 years of top-class research at VUB into in-vitro methods as an alternative for animal testing. The centre aims to become the hub for new research networks in which expertise is shared, in the local and international research community. Read more at www.ic-3rs.org.