Every year, more than 115 million animals are used worldwide for biomedical experimentation, and every year, several animal rights activist groups argue against this practice. This has fueled an immense debate on the ethics behind animal experimentation. There are those who believe some medical problems can only be studied in a living organism, and animals are used when no alternative is available or when it is impractical to study humans. They believe that regardless of the harm done to these animals, animal experimentation must continue due to its invaluable contribution to the study of disease and to the development of novel therapies. Other groups argue that all animal experimentation should end as animals do not deserve to be used as tools, especially since they can also feel pain, fear and suffering. Under this view, animals should have the same rights as human beings to live out a full life. Regardless of their position in this debate, people from both groups share the belief that there are still improvements to be made, such as maintaining better animal housing conditions in research facilities, using anesthesia responsibly, and ensuring that only capable and well-trained personnel can handle animals. Indeed, it is possible to consolidate these two seemingly opposing views and find a middle path by which animal experimentation can be responsibly and consciously conducted for the benefit of both human and non-human species.
The moral perils of animal experimentation
Arguments against animal experimentation are much more nuanced and various than they may seem at first glance. For example, even though animal use for the study of health and disease can be beneficial to humans, animal testing for cosmetic products is more difficult to justify. Is it worth the stress and suffering animals have to endure when they are exposed to non-medical products? Where do we draw the line on where our actions stop being justified?
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), one of the strongest proponents of animal rights, focuses on areas where animals suffer the most: food industry, laboratories, entertainment industry and clothing industry. One important point being considered by this group and others is the moral status of an animal. Animal rights activists claim that animals have the same moral status as humans and therefore we should not force them into our service, kill them or treat them as a means to further our goals. But what defines moral status? Utilitarians say animals, like humans, are moral beings as they can feel pain and pleasure, and this should grant them equal treatment as humans. In addition, strong animal rights activists assert that not all forms of animal suffering from experimentation are justified even if the benefits outweigh the harm done to the animal. For example, animal testing of medicines, cosmetics and chemicals (such as paints, inks, solvents, dyes, petrol products and waste materials) has been called into question. To test the safety and efficacy of these substances, researchers typically forcibly administer them to their animal subjects, then almost always euthanize the animals for organ harvesting and observation. Furthermore, activists question the use of LD50, which is a standard toxicity test where consecutive increasing doses of the tested chemical are administered until 50% of all animals die. These procedures, they argue, all cause a lot of unnecessary distress in animals.
In addition, throughout their lifetime, laboratory animals often experience significant physical and psychological stressors, such as artificial housing conditions, rough handling by multiple personnel, or having to endure multiple pregnancies, only to have their offspring taken away.
Another set of arguments against animal research revolves around the applicability of experimental results from animal models to humans. For example, some human diseases have to be artificially induced in animals, whereas for other diseases, animals have to be genetically modified to become good models. These artificial interventions, some argue, do not replicate the full pathophysiology of different diseases and underlying causes. Similarly, artificial housing conditions for these animals can alter species-specific behaviors, resulting in confounding experimental results. Furthermore, physiological reactions to drugs can vary drastically between species and even within the same species. For example, Viox, a drug used to treat arthritis, was safe when tested on monkeys but was found in humans to have caused more the 300,000 heart related problems and around 140,000 deaths worldwide.
Finally, animal rights activists encourage increased non-animal research practices, such as using human tissue- and cell-based research methods, high-fidelity human-patient simulators, computational models, and micro-dosing, among many other methods, arguing they are more reliable, precise and less expensive. For example, crude skin allergy tests in guinea pigs predict human reactions 72% of the time. However, a combined chemistry and cell-based approach has been shown to predict human reactions 90% of the time.
PETA and other animal rights activist groups often come under scrutiny and criticism, particularly by the scientific community. However, it is important to acknowledge their arguments, many of which point to valid concerns regarding animal welfare. As scientists, we ought to realize that animals, like us, feel pain and stress. Because of this, we should consider alternatives whenever possible and, if using animals, minimize any harm done as well as the number of animals used to make every life count.
Justifying animal research
The quest for knowledge of the human body in the context of health and disease has been a recurring theme for many centuries, yet there is much we still do not know. Although many scientific advances were gained from bacterial and cell cultures, animal use is still an essential component of research due to its high contribution to the understanding of the complex interactions between cells and tissues. Still, is it always justified? What is the rationale for our continued animal testing?
Many people question the use of animals for biomedical research as it has been claimed that those animals must endure a lot of physical and psychological stress. However, it must be pointed out that research institutions have veterinary specialists and ethical committees to ensure animals are well-treated, and any harm or stress they experience needs to be justified and in the context of the research question. Furthermore, different health regulations across the world require several phases of research in order to allow distribution and use of a new medicine. Initial phases are done in vitro using tissues and isolated organs, but typically a subsequent experimental phase conducted in animal models is required prior to clinical trials in humans. Thus, given this current system, animal experimentation is unavoidable. On the bright side, not only do humans benefit from this research process, but hundreds of drugs and therapies developed for humans are also used in veterinary clinics.
Although animals can seem different, their biology is very similar to us even at the genetic level. Some species, such as mice, can share more than 98% DNA similarity with humans. In addition, animals are also susceptible to similar health problems as humans. For example, apes, sheep, horses, pigs, cats and dogs can get diabetes spontaneously. This means animals can be used to understand our bodies in the context of health and disease, and they can also help us to predict whether medicines are likely to work safely and efficiently. Thanks to their use, mice have massively contributed to the treatment and survival of breast cancer; cats have contributed to our understanding of disorders such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), epilepsy and sleep apnea; and zebrafish is a very good model to study hemophilia.
Another reason for animal use in research is their shorter life cycle compared to humans, which allows scientists to study animals through their whole lifespan and even across multiple generations, which can yield insights into chronic disease progression, long-term adverse effects of a given treatment, and associated long-term risk factors of diseases.
Finally, given the cost of animal use, researchers are normally already committed to using alternatives to animal models whenever possible. Such alternatives include cell-culture techniques, computer modeling, and human or animal serum testing, among others. These techniques have historically played an important role in biomedical research. However, one great disadvantage is that they do not reproduce all the interactions of a whole living biological system nor they can reveal long-term or multi-organ adverse effects of a particular therapy. This is where scientists must inevitably resort to animal experimentation.
Even though many advances and alternatives have become available in the last few years, they are not perfect, and we still have many questions to address regarding health and disease. Animal research has yielded many scientific advances and saved millions of lives. However, their use is not always justified as in the case of animal testing within the cosmetics industry. On the bright side, governments around the world have started implementing new regulations to tackle this issue. For example, in 2013, a ban on animal testing for cosmetics went into effect in the European Union as well as in India, Israel, and Norway. Hopefully, a point of balance can be reached where animal use can be minimized as much as possible worldwide while using alternatives that work with the same efficacy or even better.
Taking the middle path
At the end of the day, animal research has played a vital part in nearly every medical breakthrough for many centuries, nonetheless, their use may sit uncomfortably with or evoke emotional responses in some people. Still, it is important to keep in mind that the benefits to both humans and other species that arise from their experimentation outweigh the harm done to the laboratory animals. Instead of stopping animal experimentation, we can work towards reducing their use. For example, animal models could be a last resort, only reserved for cases where there are no in vitro or bacterial models available to study a particular health problem. Extensive literature review should be conducted to ensure that there are no unnecessary experiments done. When animals are used for research purposes, the studies should be conducted under the highest standards by qualified personnel and if possible, using anesthesia to ensure humane practices. Furthermore, research institutions do have ethics committees that are responsible for approving and monitoring research within a specific establishment. They are responsible for providing and supporting researchers on matters of animal welfare through the preparation of detailed guidelines and dissemination of relevant scientific sources.
It is worth mentioning many countries release annual reports regarding animal count and distribution. Unfortunately, these reports have indicated rising animal use over the past two decades. For example, in Great Britain, the number of animals used grew steadily from 1939 to mid-1970s to a peak of 5.5 million experiments and then steadily declined until around 2000 to 2.6 million experiments. After that, numbers have risen about 4 million, and the majority of animals used are those with genetic modifications or defects. On the other hand, the number of genetically normal animals have dropped steadily.
Despite the debate around animal use for research purposes, there exists a middle ground, which encourages animal use only when there are no alternatives available and only if the potential benefits outweigh the harm being done. Because of this, we should not forget that they are the real heroes and thanks to their sacrifice, millions of lives are being saved every day. As a result, we should treat them with respect, to seek alternatives whenever possible and to minimize their use by making every single life count.
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