Use of Fetal Calf Serum

Background:

Calf

Humane Research Australia considers the use of human cell and tissue culture to be, clearly, a more ethical and scientifically-valid mode of research than using animals. Unfortunately though, even when using these "in-vitro" methods, a component of animal cruelty can possibly still remain.

Human cells and tissue are grown in a culture form and in order for the cells or tissue to grow and proliferate, a source of nutrients, namely hormones and growth factors must be added. The usual supplement is fetal calf serum – also known as fetal bovine serum - a product that is cruelly derived from the fetuses of cows found pregnant at slaughter. Serum is blood without any cells, platelets or clotting factors and fetal calf serum especially, is considered to be a rich source of nutrients.

It has been estimated that around half a million litres of raw FCS is produced each year worldwide which equates to the harvesting of more than one million bovine fetuses annually. (1) Some sources have suggested that the actual figure may be closer to two million fetuses per year. (2)

Method of collection:

Close up of cow

After slaughter and bleeding of the cow at an abattoir, the mother's uterus containing the calf fetus is removed during the evisceration process (removal of the mother's internal organs) and transferred to the blood collection room. (3). A needle is then inserted between the fetus's ribs directly into its heart and the blood is vacuumed into a sterile collection bag. This process is aimed at minimizing the risk of contamination of the serum with micro-organisms from the fetus and its environment. Only fetuses over the age of three months are used otherwise the heart is considered too small to puncture. (4)

Once collected, the blood is allowed to clot at room temperature and the serum separated through a process known as refrigerated centrifugation.

It remains questionable as to whether or not fetuses have already died from anoxia (deprivation of oxygen) prior to serum collection. Nevertheless, no anesthesia is given, despite their possible ability to experience pain and discomfort.

Disadvantages of using FCS:

While of course we don't advocate cruelty to any living being, there are also many compelling scientific reasons why Fetal Calf Serum should no longer be used in research. Here are a few strong arguments:

  • Serum is a major source of viral contaminants which once present, are almost impossible to remove from cultures. It can contain viruses, prions (a protein that can transform into a rogue agent) and mycoplasma (considered to be a primitive form of bacteria), (5) each of which can skew the outcome of scientific experiments.
  • Many substances present in FCS have not yet been identified, and of the substances which have been, the function of the cultured cells is not always clear.” (6)
  • FCS can interfere with genotypic and phenotypic cell stability, which can also influence experimental outcome.
  • Serum can suppress cell spreading, attachment and embryonal tissue differentiation, which is the process by which embryonic cells develop into specialized cells for particular functions. Critically, this can actually prevent an objective of cell growth research especially when we talk about growing new organs and limbs.

For a concise overview, read

"Serum-free hybridoma culture: ethical, scientific and safety considerations" (541KB PDF)

Alternatives:

Rather than just criticising a process of research that uses animals, our objective at HRA is always to present realistic and viable scientific alternatives. In this case, like all, a number of alternatives to the usage of FCS do actually exist!

  • The new sefrec database gives an overview of 500 cell culture media and 32 cell lines that are currently available for serum-free culture systems. The database, established with the support of the 3R’s Research Foundation, is interactive and access is free-of-charge.
  • ‘Focus on Alternatives' is a group of British organisations working together to advance the replacement of animal experiments. It has compiled a document called “Serum-free media for cell culture” which provides an overview of the range of commercially available serum-free media. Copies of the document can be obtained from .

Copies of all of these documents are available from HRA.

  • Australian company Tissue Therapies Limited has been working hard to produce objective data proving that its synthetic VitroGro® protein complex can replace all animal proteins, not just calf serum, for the culture of a range of different cell types. TTL estimates that commercial supply should begin in small volumes late in 2007.

What can you do?

  • If you are directly involved in research and require sera, consider the use of an alternative to FCS.
  • If you are a member of an animal ethics committee insist that an alternative to FCS is used.
  • Contact the Animal Ethics Office of your university/institution and urge them to ban the use of FCS.

The Australian Code of Practice for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes states that “ Techniques that totally or partially replace the use of animals for scientific purposes must be sought and used wherever possible .” (7)

It further states “ Institutions, AEC's investigators and teachers have responsibility for compliance with the Code .” (8)

In summary, HRA believes strongly that researchers have a moral and a legal obligation to replace animals with alternatives when they are available. We feel it therefore makes sense to shift toward a more humane and scientifically valid methodology.

  1. Carlo E A Jochems, Jan B.F. van der Valk, Frans R Stafleu and Vera Baumans. 2002. “The use of fetal bovine serum: ethical or scientific problem?” Alternatives to Laboratory Animals (ATLA) 30, 219-227.
  2. “Serum-free media for cell culture” compiled by Focus on Alternatives, August 2005.
  3. Personal correspondence with AQIS Meat Operations.
  4. Carlo E A Jochems, Jan B.F. van der Valk, Frans R Stafleu and Vera Baumans. 2002. “The use of fetal bovine serum: ethical or scientific problem?” Alternatives to Laboratory Animals (ATLA) 30, 219-227.
  5. E. Falkner, H. Appl, C. Eder, K. Macfelda, U. Losert, H. Schoeffl, W. Pfaller,. “Serum Free Cell Culture Media Updated Product Guide 1/2004-05,” Zet, Centre for Alternative and Complementary Methods to Animal Testing, Austria .
  6. Carlo E A Jochems, Jan B.F. van der Valk, Frans R Stafleu and Vera Baumans. 2002. “The use of fetal bovine serum: ethical or scientific problem?” Alternatives to Laboratory Animals (ATLA) 30, 219-227.
  7. Australian Code of Practice for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes. 7 th edition 2004. (1.8 page 6)
  8. Australian Code of Practice for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes. 7 th edition 2004. (2.2.47 page 20)

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