Prof. dr. Leon de Windt, project leader BMC

“No medicines without animal testing”

“All the medicines that we now have would not exist without animal testing. I repeat: ALL.” Prof. Leon de Windt is a professor of Molecular Cardiovascular Biology. He researches, with the help of animal testing, the characteristics of a diseased heart and how the treatment can thus be improved. For two years now, he has also been taking the lead on the building of the new Biomedical Centre (BMC). It is there that in the future all Maastricht laboratory animals will be housed, experiments will be carried out and alternatives to animal testing will be developed. “For the time being, we can’t do without animal testing for a number of reasons. But I’m also working hard with my team to develop alternatives. Because, of course, I would rather test something on human cells rather than on an animal.”

Why do you not use heart cells in a petri dish for your research, if that is actually your preference?
“Because a human heart cell dies within a few hours outside the body, it is simply impossible to recreate the complexity of a living heart in a petri dish or computer model. This is different for other organs, such as kidneys or lungs or even brains. But for the heart, there are unfortunately no laboratory models that are sufficient for scientific research. My group is working hard on that: making heart muscle cells from human stem cells. How do we keep them alive? Are they similar enough to human heart cells? With the ultimate goal of not having to use animals for testing. I want to make my contribution to this for the future.”

Who actually says that you are obliged to use laboratory animals?
“The Dutch and European governments. If you think you’re on the right track towards a new potential drug, you can’t immediately test it in patients. That also seems sensible to me. I don’t think anyone wants to expose their healthy family member to a heart attack for research purposes. First, according to the law, you must demonstrate in two different animal species that it indeed works. And then again in two animal species that it’s not toxic. Every medicine in the pharmacy has therefore passed through four animal species—from ADHD medication to statins for high cholesterol or creams for eczema, as well as the antacids and painkillers that you just buy in the supermarket nowadays. ALL the medications we have now have been tested on animals.”

Is there anything meaningful to say about when alternatives will be sufficient?
“A minister from the previous cabinet once said that the Netherlands should be free of animal testing by 2025. I find that a naïve remark, which fortunately has now been nuanced. Suppose Europe would stop animal testing now. Then all this research and the accompanying biotech industry, which is big in the Netherlands, will move to a different part of the world. It could go to China, for example, where they look at animal welfare very differently. Do we really want to ‘wash our hands’ of it this way? I find that unethical. The reality is that if we want to contribute to the further improvement of healthcare, animal testing is indispensable. That goes for a vaccine against q fever, which the Dutch government is now urgently searching for, or better chances of survival for people with cancer or cardiovascular disease. Anyone who has lost a loved one to this type of disease wonders if a better treatment can’t be developed.”

What, for example, have you achieved with the help of laboratory animal research?
“In addition to DNA, we also have RNA in our body: macromolecules in which hereditary characteristics are recorded. In mice with heart disease, we saw ‘overexpression’ of a certain RNA molecule, meaning that it was overrepresented. We looked at biopsies of hearts of people who had died, and we saw exactly the same thing. In our lab, we then developed a medication that can slow down that RNA. When we administer that to mice with high blood pressure and heart disease, their hearts recover. The next step was to test it in a larger laboratory animal. In Portugal, we found a group of surgeons who had experience with this type of research in pigs. The pig hearts also did very well on our medication. The next step is toxicity testing, whether it has a poisoning effect. For this study, which may potentially contribute to the treatment of heart disease caused by aortic valve stenosis or high blood pressure, a total of five pigs and about one hundred mice have been used so far.”

Do you find that number to be low?
“Everything depends on the context, of course. If you consider that people put out mouse traps at home and that the shelves in the supermarkets are full of pork every day, for which pigs are not always kept or slaughtered in a pleasant way, I think that’s justifiable. We don’t do it to torment animals, but for safety. If it could have been done with fewer, we absolutely would have done it because we’re very conscious as scientists of the three R's that we strive for in the Netherlands: Reduction, Refinement and Replacement of animal testing.”

If it all needs to be reduced anyway, why invest in a new building?
“Because animal testing is still necessary and legally required for the time being, and the Maastricht facilities are outdated. They comply with the legislation, but they can be so much better, also for the animals. As project leader of the new Biomedical Centre, I’ve made sure that things have been running smoothly for the past two years: that the wishes of researchers, managers and animal caretakers were translated well to architects and that we stayed within budget.”

Are you afraid of intimidation by anti-animal testing activists?
“Of course, I sometimes think about that. I find it hard to understand why people threaten you because you’re doing your work—because you want to eliminate cancer or heart failure. I actually think it’s cowardly and incomprehensible, like preventing paramedics from doing their job. If you’re really against animal testing, you can vote for the Party for the Animals, for example. If that party then receives a majority in the upper and lower houses of parliament and passes legislation that prohibits animal testing, then animal testing is prohibited. This is how a democratic society works. But then I would really like to hear from that party how we can achieve breakthroughs in the treatment of Alzheimer's, brain tumours and more.”