The importance of human-based research

What is human-based research? 

Human-based research covers a wide range of innovative methodologies and biotechnology or New Methodological Approaches (NAM), relevant to humans as they use advanced current knowledge on human biology, to study diseases and develop safe and effective drugs in humans, recognizing the importance of species-specificity (1-4). Human-based methods have already proved useful for understanding human pathologies and predicting human responses, in some cases even better than traditional in vivo models can (5-9). Despite this, their potential is limited by regulatory restrictions and their non-adoption by regulatory authorities. Moreover, they are still poorly considered in basic research, still dominated by traditional approaches and reductionist thinking, a legacy of the past (10-13).

With adequate public funding, the updating of regulations, which date back more than 70 years, and the correct training of future researchers, the human-based approach will accelerate the development of effective drugs and the discovery of cures for diseases that afflict humanity.

How human-based research helps patients

Drugs that look promising in the early stages of research (preclinical, in vitro and in vivo phases) rarely reach pharmacy shelves. A large percentage of drugs (around 95%) which have passed the preclinical phases, fails in fact during clinical trials, on humans (14, 15).

This has largely been attributed to the inadequacy of traditional models (in vitro and animals)(16). The reasons why potential drugs do not pass human tests relate to both efficacy and toxicity problems (16, 17). Hence the urgent need for a paradigm shift in biomedical research, shifting the focus to human-based methods, and to use an approach that is physiologically more relevant (1, 18-20).

Research based on human biology is essential to protect volunteers in clinical trials

Replacing animal testing with modern human-based approaches is essential to prevent harm to human volunteers in clinical trials. Outdated regulations requiring preclinical animal testing were intended to protect people at a time when today’s possibilities and technologies did not exist and the limits and dangers of over-reliance on animal models were not known. In the light of current knowledge, it is now recognised that the unreliability of animal test data not only risks making us bin potential cures (21) but also exposes human volunteers to serious risks (22). To give an example, the case of TeGenero, where 6 healthy volunteers risked their lives and suffered serious permanent damage as a result of taking the drug TGN1212, which had previously proved completely harmless in animals (23, 24). Some human-based tests such as “Skimune” (6, 7), developed by a team at the University of Newcastel, or a micro-engineered on-chip vascular system (8) would have been able to predict the adverse reaction instead, avoiding tragedy. This is just one example that teaches us the scientific, and not just ethical, importance of an approach focused on human biology and how misleading and dangerous it can be to see the animal model as the best option, the gold standard, as an in vivo model.

How human-based research could positively affect the reputation of universities and Italian research

Politically and economically supporting human-based research would mean allowing our country the opportunity to contribute to the world leadership in innovations without laboratory animals that will be awarded by 2025, keeping up with the rest of Europe. This would also allow researchers and new talents who wish to work with the new methodological approaches to stay in Italy, avoiding the brain drain and the loss of resources.


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