PETA-funded project takes early steps to create humane source of diphtheria antitoxin

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on January 23, 2020

Novel method will use blood samples from people, rather than draining blood from horses

The first steps have been taken towards ending the use of horses in India and other countries in the creation of antitoxins used to treat diphtheria, said the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

The reference is to the creation of recombinant human antibodies capable of blocking the poisonous toxin that causes diphtheria. These new antibodies are derived from a non-animal source, a progressive departure from existing practices, were it was got from horses.

Funded by PETA International Science Consortium Ltd and carried out at the Institute of Biochemistry, Biotechnology, and Bioinformatics at Germany’s Technische Universität Braunschweig, the results from the project were recently published in Scientific Reports (a Nature research journal), a note from PETA said.

The research involved taking blood samples, with consent, from a person recovering from diphtheria and identifying the immune sequence in it, explained Dipti Kapoor, adviser to the PETA International Science Consortium and PETA India. This was then replicated, like a photo-copying exercise, she told BusinessLine. The hope is to see the antitoxin made available in the marketplace. Responding to a query on whether they are talking to drug companies and governments to bring the antitoxin to market, she said they are in discussions “on all fronts” to take this to the next level.

Deadly infectious disease

Diphtheria is a potentially deadly infectious disease causing severe respiratory distress and damage to vital organs. For more than 100 years, the main method of producing the antitoxin to treat it has been to inject horses repeatedly with the diphtheria toxin and then drain them of huge amounts of blood in order to collect the antibodies that their immune systems produce to fight the disease, PETA said.

This animal-origin antitoxin has the potential to cause serious allergic reactions in humans. Also, global health authorities have reported having difficulty in acquiring sufficient stockpiles of these antitoxins to respond quickly to diphtheria outbreaks, the PETA note added.

An added benefit in getting an antitoxin from a human, and humane, source is that it is safe, consistent and does not run the risk of being rejected by the body, as is the case sometimes with equine-sourced antitoxins, said Kapoor.

Widespread animal neglect

PETA alleged that inspections of Indian facilities where horses are commonly used to produce animal-derived antitoxins — for both domestic use and export — have found widespread neglect of animal welfare concerns and regulations. Horses are often confined to filthy, severely crowded enclosures, and suffer from anaemia, diseased hooves, eye abnormalities, infections, parasites and malnutrition.

“The Science Consortium is now working with its research partners to ensure that the non-animal antitoxin is developed into a medicine that will be used to treat this menacing disease more reliably and safely without causing a single horse to suffer,” it added.

“Thousands of horses in India and around the world are forced to endure cruel treatment for the production of many different types of drugs, not just diphtheria antitoxin,” said Kapoor. “Solid science has now given these horses a way out of this suffering.”

PETA International Science Consortium is a non-profit affiliate of PETA, said Kapoor. It works to accelerate the development, validation and global implementation of animal-free testing. Established in 2012, the Science Consortium and its members have donated significant funds towards helping to reduce and replace animal use, the PETA note said.

Published on January 23, 2020

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