With the EU ban on animal testing for cosmetic ingredients only a year away, funding is increasing and research efforts are intensifying but the development of reliable alternatives remains a slow process.
Researchers at the Institute for Toxicology and Experimental Medicine (ITEM) in Germany are investigating alternatives to animal testing for allergens absorbed through the lungs.
Working for the EU-funded Sens-it-iv project, which is charged with developing alternatives to animal testing, the scientists are currently using lung tissue from rodents rather than live animals to test the allergy risk of certain chemicals.
The end goal of developing tests without animals remains distant as the process of understanding how chemicals interact with human tissue, developing testing alternatives for new chemicals and then validating them is both slow and complex.
Scientists at ITEM are currently harvesting thin slices of lung tissue from rodents and then analysing how the tissue reacts to different chemicals.
Observing the changes such as the protein molecules produced may allow the researchers to predict whether different chemicals could trigger allergic reactions.
However, a detailed process of verification involving chemicals already known to provoke allergies is necessary before the method can be given the all clear.
The impact of the research on safety testing of cosmetics is limited by the fact that even if the method proves successful animals are still used albeit in fewer numbers.
Sens-it-iv coordinator Erwin Roggen said that while the testing method could not be employed for cosmetic ingredients in the EU after 2009, the know-how developed from the research will help in the development of alternatives.
The progress made by the science community into alternatives to animal testing remains piecemeal as the 2009 deadline in the EU approaches.
Chris Flower, the director general of Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) in the UK, told CosmeticsDesign.com: "Science is not ready to provide a comprehensive range of alternatives to animal testing in time for the ban. Science doesn't just follow political will."
The head of the trade association said if the development of alternatives were easy the industry would have abandoned animal testing years ago.
However, Flower said progress was being made at a faster pace than ever before with the safety assessment of potential skin irritants being an area where animal testing is now largely unnecessary.
He said the cosmetics industry had no choice but to adapt to the 2009 ban and was currently getting the ball rolling with regards to investment.
Research into the development of alternatives to animal testing has been chronically under-funded in the past providing too little opportunity or reward for talented academics willing to work in the field, added the industry representative.
Nonetheless, EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik recently criticized industry and academia for failing to commit sufficient resources to finding alternatives to animal testing.
He also called for greater recognition of alternative testing as an academic discipline, noting that in the EU only four professorships exist in the domain.