Meet Elisabeth Mertl, the Viennese Chemist Who Saved Mice From Animal Experiments

“I like wearing the white coat. I always pictured them on mad scientists in laboratories – that’s what I wanted to do.”

When Elisabeth Mertl did her first internship at the Institute of Molecular Technology in 2010, she landed in the Maushaus, a cellar where hundreds of white mice were bred and kept. The conditions for her were not so bad, but not necessarily for the mice.

“Let’s just say their days were numbered,” said Mertl, 27. Many of them, she soon learned, would have to be killed for experiments.

But rather than running out to join PETA, the Burgenland native developed an alternative way to test medical devices without using animals.

We’re all familiar with horror stories involving fluffy little rabbits used to test makeup and skin creams, but the good news is that cosmetics testing on animals has been banned in the EU since 2013.

The technique that Mertl and her young team at the OFI (Österreichisches Forschungsinstitut für Chemie und Technik) developed uses cell cultures to test the toxicological effect of medical devices such as hearing aids and prostheses. This has been particularly effective in testing for allergic reactions, whereby skin cells’ natural response signals can be genetically altered to emit a glow visible to the human eye. 

But can cells in a petri dish really replace an actual animal?

“In many ways, they work even better,” said Mertl, proudly – work that earned her the 2019 Woman’s Award of the Austrian Cooperative Research association of independent R&D institutes. They are easier to control and more predictable than animals, whose idiosyncratic bodies can introduce undetected variables that blur the outcome. The cultures also react more sensitively, as they can detect even lower amounts of a harmful substance than animal tests would, thereby increasing margins of safety.

Dealing with the safety of materials, Mertl’s awareness of the everyday compounds around her has increased. She pays attention to things like dyed textiles used for clothing, and has long since stopped eating fish and chips wrapped in daily tabloids.

“But you can’t test everything,” she said, laughing. “Think of the overtime!”

Janima Nam
Janima Nam
Janima Nam is a freelance journalist, translator, and editor living in Vienna. She has a BFA in film from New York University and a Masters degree (MA) from the London Consortium in Interdisciplinary Studies.

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