Does Science Support Animal-Based Research?
From casual living room discussions with friends to philosophical discourse in university lecture theatres, the ethics of animal experimentation is probably a subject that has already been debated to death. On the one hand, we acknowledge that the suffering that is inflicted upon animals in the name of scientific research is a form of animal abuse and cruelty. Animals are forced to endure painful and inhumane practices, which contradict socially-accepted notions of animal rights and standards of animal welfare. On the other hand, if one of your close loved ones, in particular your child, suffered from a genetic defect or was diagnosed with a terminal illness, you would consider the life of your loved one to be more important than that of a nameless animal. If it is believed that animal experiments can save the life of a child, then of course a parent will support that research, or pretty much any other activity to save their child (and understandably so). Animal experiments are thus considered a ‘necessary evil’ in these situations.
Putting ethical considerations aside for a minute though, what other factors should we consider when deciding whether animal experimentation should be abolished in the Australian medical research field?
I spoke with Helen Marston, the CEO of Humane Research Australia (HRA), on this issue. Her not-for-profit organisation advocates for the abolishment of animal experimentation in Australia and a shift towards using “human-relevant” research methods instead. In particular, HRA challenges traditional animal-based research methods on the basis of scientific reasons, not just ethical ones.
Helen, what are some of the scientific reasons for ceasing the use of animals in medical research?
It is now becoming increasingly acknowledged by medical experts that reliance on data obtained from animals and extrapolated to human conditions is often misleading. Species differences – anatomic, genetic and metabolic differences mean that a drug, a surgical procedure or a genetic modification can result in vastly different outcomes from one species to another.
Consider the following common examples:
- Morphine sedates humans but it stimulates cats;
- Aspirin causes birth defects in rats, mice and monkeys but not in humans;
- Penicillin is highly toxic to guinea pigs and hamsters, yet safe in mice and rats; and
- The common industrial chemical benzene causes leukemia in humans but not in mice.
- Smoking experiments on dogs failed to prove that it causes cancer. This delayed warnings on cigarette packets for decades which is likely to have cost thousands of lives.
- The thalidomide tragedy is probably the most well-known example of how animal experiments have been misleading. This drug, that was intended to prevent morning sickness, resulted in tens of thousands of children born with severe deformities such as missing limbs.
Due to the vast amount of evidence showing that data extrapolated from animal experiments can prove misleading or even fatal when applied to humans I would argue that animal rights aside, it is unethical to continue with methods that exhaust precious research funding, waste valuable time, and delay progress toward genuine human cures. We therefore owe it to our family and friends to promote human-specific medical research.
But don’t animal experiments sometimes produce significant results and lead to life-saving treatments?
When we consider the millions of experiments conducted on animals over the years it would be logical that some consistency with human outcomes would occur. Is the use of animals the most efficacious way however – particularly when we consider the many ways in which it has misled us, and what would the course of history have been had alternate paths been taken?
Researchers often point to discoveries made through animal research because that’s simply how it’s been done in the past. This is not to say however that such discoveries could have been made by other means.
In fact, sometimes many medical discoveries are falsely attributed to animal experiments. For example:
- Ovarian function was demonstrated by physician Dr. Robert.T. Morris in 1895 in surgical procedures on women, yet history credits the discovery to Emil Knauer who one year later reproduced the procedure in rabbits.
- Banting and Best are often cited as having discovered insulin through animal experiments in 1922. However the connection between diabetic symptoms and the pancreas actually dates back to 1788 when an English physician, Thomas Cawley, performed an autopsy on a diabetic.
- Whilst often credited to animal research, studies on monkeys falsely indicated that the polio virus was transmitted via a respiratory, rather than a digestive route. This erroneous assumption resulted in misdirected preventive measures and delayed the development of tissue culture methodologies which were critical to the discovery of a vaccine.
A concept I have always found particularly interesting is that according to Food and Drugs Administration (the regulatory authority in the United States) nine out of ten drugs deemed successful in animal tests fail in human trials. Imagine then, those drugs that didn’t work in animals that might well have worked in humans. We may well have discarded a cure for cancer!
What are the alternatives to animal testing?
As new technologies emerge, the range of non-animal methods continues to grow. Despite claims by some researchers that alternative methods are not yet sophisticated enough to replace animal tests, they are more dependable and produce more accurate results than tests on species who differ from humans in their metabolism of toxins, absorption of chemicals, mechanisms of DNA repair and lifespan – all factors that have a profound effect on the efficacy of drugs.
There have been international moves towards supporting alternatives to animals in research. Techniques such as computer modelling, genomics, nanotechnology, micro-dosing and microfluidic chips, just to name a few, have been developed with government funding and support to provide human-relevant models.
How can Australia continue to move away from animal experimentation in the area of medical research?
Hundreds of millions of dollars are distributed for medical research every year. As the validity of animal testing is increasingly questioned, Australian research is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Hence, there is a compelling argument for allocating a significant proportion of funding to provide financial incentives for researchers to develop alternatives – as is already happening in other nations.
Current legislative changes banning the testing of cosmetics products on animals illustrate that it is both possible and preferable to adopt non-animal methodologies. As a next step, this must be extended to the use of animals in other areas of research. It is evident that, Australia should establish a government-funded institution dedicated to the replacement of animals in medical research.
Suggested interim measures include:
- allocating a percentage of medical research funding specifically for the development of research methods that will replace animals;
- awarding a state or federal prize for innovative research replacing animals; and
- implementing grants to enable researchers to seek replacements for animals in medical research.
Humane Research Australia is a not for profit organisation that challenges the use of animals in research and promotes more humane and scientifically-valid alternatives.
They will have a stall on World Vegan Day Melbourne so please stop by to learn more about the wonderful work they do to end animal experimentation in Australia and find out how you can help support their efforts!