Towards replacing rabbit eye tests

26 October 2009

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Category: Animal welfare & alternatives

lab–rabbit.jpgTwo new 'non-animal methods', have now been approved by OECD for testing the irritancy of some substances to the eye. They use beef and chicken tissues taken from slaughterhouses instead of using live animals. However, these tests can currently only be used to classify strong irritants, and only for specific chemical classes. So they are not a full replacement for the live animal test, but we hope the number of rabbits used in the Draize eye test will now fall.

The BCOP and ICE tests are suitable for identifying substances that cause severe irritation or permanent damage to the eye; other tests are under development for mild irritants. And it is still up to specific countries and regions to decide how the new tests can be applied for regulatory use, as the OECD is not in itself a regulator.

Nearly 500 Draize eye tests took place in the UK in 2008. No animals were used for testing cosmetics or toiletries, a practice outlawed in the UK over 10 years ago. Even so, the test has gained unwarranted notoriety. The modern test is in fact very mild with only dilute solutions of the test substance being administered to rabbits' eyes, and washed out immediately any adverse effect is seen.

Despite much effort by scientists and some success, it is unlikely that one test will provide a complete replacement for the Draize eye test. This is because of the complexity of the mechanisms causing eye irritation and the range of different classes of chemicals that require testing. Instead, a raft of in vitro tests is likely to be required and the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods is currently working on tiered testing strategies that would be suitable. Some but not all of these tests have been validated.

Nevertheless, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) claimed that the recently approved methods completely replaced the rabbit Draize eye test. It also said that the BCOP test took too long to validate, citing ‘underinvestment’. With typical overstatement BUAV added ‘If properly implemented, this move will prevent the untold suffering of thousands of rabbits throughout the world who [sic] would otherwise be forcibly restrained while potentially irritating chemicals and cosmetics were dripped into their eyes…. Part of the problem is the massive obstacles that are put in the path of non-animal alternatives'.

See also our pages on safety testing, alternatives and the three Rs.