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Illustrated portrait of Kristie Sullivan Lauren Tamaki for Vox

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Kristie Sullivan is quietly, and effectively, fighting animal testing

High-tech methods of chemical testing are helping get animals out of labs.

Kenny Torrella is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section, with a focus on animal welfare and the future of meat.

For two decades, Kristie Sullivan has been working behind the scenes with some of the world’s largest governments and corporations to reduce experiments on animals.

A significant portion of animal testing is done with the aim of making chemicals used in everything from cosmetics to pharmaceutical drugs to pesticides safe for consumers and the environment. But in the process, millions of animals annually — mostly mice and rats, but also rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, and fish — are subjected to torturous experiments, forced to ingest or inhale chemicals in high doses or have them rubbed on their skin or in their eyes.

However, a lot of that testing is redundant and unnecessary, and could be replaced by more modern, humane methods. That’s where Sullivan comes in.

A toxicologist by training, Sullivan got her start in 2003 at the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine by working with chemical companies to identify where they could reduce animal tests. One chemical, for example, might have an analogous counterpart for which there’s already abundant safety data, so a new suite of tests wouldn’t be needed.

Through that work, Sullivan developed relationships with government regulators and major chemical companies, who came to see that she and her colleagues weren’t just protesting animal experimentation, but finding ways to reduce it.

At the same time, there was change brewing in the field of toxicology, as researchers were figuring out how to assess chemical safety using high-tech, non-animal methods. And the government got behind it: In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences published a report, commissioned by the US Environmental Protection Agency, that envisioned a future in which much of chemical safety assessments could be carried out faster and more effectively via non-animal methods.

“Given a sufficient research and development effort, human cell systems have the potential to largely supplant animal testing,” the report’s authors wrote.

Those high-tech approaches include testing chemicals in vitro (in petri dishes) using human cells, or accurately predicting their effects using computer modeling. Some researchers have built microfluidic devices, dubbed “organs-on-a-chip,” lined with living cells, to test chemicals. They can even string numerous chips together to create multi-organ systems.

The year after the report was published, the federal government launched a multi-agency effort called Tox21 to modernize chemical testing. Two years later, in 2010, Sullivan co-founded the American Society for Cellular and Computational Toxicology, a professional association still active today that brings together scientists working on these newer methods.

In the early 2010s, her work took her to Europe, where she began to reform animal testing on the world stage through the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and in 2016, Sullivan played a key role in shaping major US chemical reform legislation that directs the EPA and the chemical industry to use non-animal testing methods.

She’s now training and educating regulators and scientists at the Institute for In Vitro Sciences, a nonprofit research laboratory that also serves as a contractor for chemical companies, testing their products for safety — without animals, of course.

There’s still a long way to go toward changing the chemical safety testing landscape, but thanks to the work of Sullivan and her colleagues, governments and corporations increasingly understand that they can reduce or replace animal testing of consumer products, and in many cases, improve scientific outcomes too. Social change requires all sorts of actors, including those eager to tackle complex scientific challenges, like Sullivan. It’s not the most glamorous, attention-grabbing work, but it’s critical to building a more perfect future.

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