The first drug company to experiment exclusively on human tissue opened its laboratories last week in Royston, Hertfordshire.
Pharmagene, which has strong links with Leicester and Birmingham universities, processes human material from hospitals and tissue banks and carries out experiments on behalf of other pharmaceutical companies.
It is also engaged in joint research projects with a number of universities and will support future academic efforts with funding, equipment and technical support.
Pharmagene co-founder Robert Coleman says his company will have the edge over researchers using animals because "drugs are mainly for use on human beings and it is far more sensible to be working on tissue from the species of choice".
But he expects it will be some time before other scientists investigating the safety of medicines do away with the macaque monkey or laboratory rat.
"It is hard to extrapolate the results from one part of the body to all other parts," he said. "We can only answer specific questions about each sample of tissue. Drugs are specific in their function, but they have side-effects that we cannot predict," he says. "We can reduce the chances of uncovering something extremely unfortunate by doing experiments on animals. Animals remain a mandatory state in experimentation, especially during toxicology testing and metabolism studies."
He hopes the research centre will reduce unnecessary wastage in animal experiments. "By looking at what happens in human tissue we can target research at the right animal," he said.
Pharmagene has operated out of the department of pharmacology at Leicester University since its founding in March. It was there it received its first supply of human tissue for research, provided by the International Institute for the Advancement of Medicine.
By gradually forming a bank of human material, the company plans to build a database on the biochemical effects of drugs.
Dr Coleman said: "Fifty per cent of our efforts will be toward setting up LifeBase and this information will be available to anyone who wants to buy the service." Drug companies will pay for the other half.