A hot topic in many people’s eyes is the continued use of animals in scientific research. There have been hundreds of protests, welfare groups, advertising campaigns and attacks on research facilities, bringing animal testing into the public eye and making it a key issue in the media.
(A laboratory mouse. Source: Natacha Pisarenko/AP)
It has been understood for years that certain practices in scientific research need to be changed as we understand more about animal welfare and take responsibility as a species for the animals in our care. We don’t really believe that scientists want to harm animals - talk to any biologist and they will bombard you with their favourite cat pictures - so why are animal tests still used today?
Historically, many important medical advances have been found through the use of animal test subjects. For example the insulin now crucial to many diabetics, and the polio and measles vaccines estimated to have saved over 100 million lives, were both developed through the use of animal testing. Indeed, nearly every Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine since 1901 has relied on animal data for their research. However animal welfare groups may have some good reasons for their concerns. The notorious drug thalidomide was marketed to reduce morning sickness in pregnant women, however the drug was only tested on rodents, and several serious unforeseen side-effects occurred including major birth defects and brain damage. In a world of greater societal conscience combined with the possible downfalls of animal subjects, alternatives have to be considered. These days, scientists are required by law to use alternatives wherever possible when carrying out research. This is enforced by a strict code of ethics and the use of a scheme called the 3R’s. These are; Reduce, to always make effort to reduce the number of animals required in trials Refine, to lessen or eliminate distress and pain wherever possible, and Replace, to substitute animal models with non-animal tests where they exist.
So what are these alternative models, and why does animal testing still continue if they are as available as some websites would have us believe? First we must remember that animal testing is very expensive and the law enforces their replacement when possible, so the very fact they do continue is testament to their necessity.
Many animal welfare groups tout computer modelling as the end to animal research, claiming that computers can completely replicate animal systems allowing for the virtual testing of drugs. However this isn’t the wonder replacement it seems. The computer programmes would still require data from animal trials to begin with, and most importantly, our brains represent a massive amount of ‘processing power’.
A recent simulation of half a mouse’s brain required the world’s fastest supercomputer, and only lasted for a second of real time. Clearly this method is not yet viable as a true alternative, not least because governments are not about to grant each lab their own supercomputer.
It has been suggested that this may be used as a preliminary filter however, as a way to Reduce the number of trials needed.
The second alternative is to use in vitro experiments, where the tissues are grown or housed in petri dishes, test tubes and flasks, rather than being part of an organism. These methods have been successfully used in certain areas such as drug absorption or cell level treatments, and have been found better and cheaper than the animal trials.
However this method is extremely limited, it is useful for the small scale, but the numerous processes and mechanisms that make up organisms make it useless when attempting to treat disease. In vitro tissues cannot feel pain, side effects, psychological issues or get pregnant, and so these studies would provide no information about real world applications. Nonetheless they can be used to reduce and replace animals in certain trials, continuing the work of the 3R’s. MRI scans and Micro dosing have also been lauded as substitutes, however these have the same downfalls as computers and in vitro. MRI scans can help us find the cause of a problem, but often the solution lies in the genetic and molecular basis and requires animal tests to achieve. Micro dosing shows cell level reactions to drugs but in its very nature, cannot predicts effects above these small doses. These are both useful in the reduction of animal tests performed, but are not viable replacements in the near future. When considering animal testing, I believe there is severe pressure from the media, public, governments and personal conscience for scientists to revolutionise their methods, however the importance of the research being carried out, and the historical impact of the products of animal testing on human progress is still enormous. I think that it is important for us to consider the alternatives and advance them, but it is also imperative that the public understands why animals are still used, and that it is for the wellbeing of all.