Why animal research is still necessary

27 March, 2012, Sean O'Neill

Theodore Roosevelt once said that ‘common sense without conscience may lead to crime, but conscience without common sense may lead to folly, which is the handmaiden of crime.’

I thought of the latter part of this statement when I read the recent BBC report about crucial medical research being stalled by animal rights protesters in the UK. These protesters were blocking the transportation of animals used in research into the country last week.

In a world where the threat to humanity from incurable diseases still looms high, this is clearly political correctness gone mad.

There were 3.7 million scientific procedures performed on animals in 2010 according to the UK home office.

The majority of animals used in research are mice, fish, rats and birds with dogs, cats and primates accounting for less than 0.5% of animals being tested. [frax09alpha]

There is also a strict code of ethics and regulations in regard to animal research worldwide.  Under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, the UK has implemented into law an ethical framework for the protection of animals used in experiments. The law requires that proposals for research must be assessed using a cost benefit analysis where the potential suffering of the animal is considered against the benefits of the research.

Nobody wants animals to be treated cruelly, but I am sure we would also like our loved ones to have the best chance of survival if faced with a deadly disease.

Although there are alternatives to animal testing, it is often necessary to test treatments within a living body.

Almost every major medical achievement has relied on animal testing at some stage in the process. Insulin, which now provides life saving treatment for those with diabetes, was once tested on animals, as were the polio vaccine, lithium and penicillin.

Some scientists are fearful that medical research could almost be stopped entirely if animal research was not allowed. With the erosion of antibiotic effectiveness a real possibility, it is essential that we use every tool we have to address the medical threats facing our civilisation.

Currently, scientists try to limit the harm caused to animals by following a set of guiding principles called the three Rs. These are as follows:

  • Replacement: Where possible, non animal methods of testing should be used over animal ones.
  • Reduction: The fewest amount of animals possible to obtain the result should be used.
  • Refinement: Testing should be refined as much as possible to reduce any suffering on the part of the animal.

But those against animal testing might argue that animals are different to humans and so the results from animal experiments may not be replicated in humans.

While this is true to some extent, it is also true to say that animals and humans share the same ancestry so humans are biologically very similar to other mammals. We all have the same organs, a bloodstream and a nervous system. So animals are an essential part of many clinical trials prior the phase one testing on humans.

There are of course alternatives to animal testing such as in vitro cell culture techniques and in silico computer simulation—however it has been argued that such systems are unlikely to provide conclusive results in terms of whole living systems.

So until we find a better way of researching complex reactions in living systems, animal research will be necessary. With the need for more innovation in the manufacture of new antibiotics to prevent the spread of multi-drug resistant bacterial infections, it is vital that we use every option open to us in testing and producing a wider range of treatments and remain a step ahead of deadly diseases.

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