The number of scientists using sophisticated human cell-based methods to study tuberculosis (TB) is increasing, improving understanding of this deadly disease and potentially reducing the number of animals used in TB research. That is the major finding of a recently published review in PLoS Pathogens that was partially funded by Humane Society International (HSI) and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

TB is the world’s leading cause of death by an infectious agent, causing over 1.8 million deaths per year and persisting in a latent form in almost 2 billion people globally. We have previously highlighted some of the reasons why animals are not effective as models of TB infection in our science blogs—particularly the fact that mice are not naturally susceptible to TB infection and do not develop the lung damage that typifies the human infection.

This new review is the latest in a series of publications supported by HSI and HSUS with the intent of actively supporting the development of roadmaps for human disease research. By supporting critical reviews of how animals are used to study important human diseases, we’re able to demonstrate how cutting-edge human-based models, such as those discussed in this review, can offer a deeper understanding of the human condition.

Ultimately, the best models for human diseases like tuberculosis are state-of-the-art cell culture-based alternatives. It is disappointing to see that animals are still being used, particularly given concerns over the quality of animal-based science and the inconsistency of data from animal studies. This review clearly indicates that advances in technology are providing complex, sophisticated, three-dimensional cultures—like the human lung “organoids” that resemble the lung and may be used for modelling the kinetics of TB infection—to monitor drug performance and evaluate the effects of new drugs.

It is exciting to think that, one day, lung organoids derived from a patient’s own cells could allow doctors to design a precise treatment specific to that individual—while also replacing the use of animals in the process.