Photograph Credit: Aaron Logan, Wikimedia

Animal Experimentation: Science, Ethics, and the Controversy

Advances in medical research have been among the most significant and beneficial events throughout the course of recent history. From cures for dangerous diseases to improvements in surgical techniques, the knowledge obtained through this research has positively changed the lives of countless people. Yet this same research, which has often been praised as being revolutionary, is also the subject of heated debate. Upon closer inspection, it is easy to see why; these advancements are largely due to animal experimentation, also commonly known as vivisection or animal research. While often beneficial (though some seek to challenge this), animal experimentation is rarely a comforting idea for many. When experiments can include acts such as infecting animals with diseases, poisoning them for toxicity testing, and other procedures which can lead to discomfort, pain, or death, it becomes easy to allow one’s emotions to lead one to quickly condemn the practice. After all, it seems inhumane to treat animals in such a manner, and one should not be blamed for reacting in this way. However, the matter cannot be resolved so simply. As mentioned previously, these experiments have led to discoveries which have changed the future of mankind forever. Furthermore, animals have also benefited from the scientific advancements brought about by this research, as similar studies have also led to significant progress in fields such as veterinary science. Yet opponents of this research also claim that it is unnecessary, with alternative methods allowing for scientists to carry out this vital research without having to harm animals. Proponents of animal experimentation respond with claims that these alternatives do not provide researchers with sufficient information, and that animal experimentation remains a superior source of knowledge. Clearly, this debate is not only important and emotional, but also complex.

Biomedical research is an important branch of science which seeks to understand the living body, what exactly takes place when diseases affect it, and how to treat or prevent those diseases using safe and effective methods. Animals are considered a vital part of every stage of this research, as they are complex, living systems which consist of cells, tissues, and organs.[1] These animals serve as models which can interact and react to stimuli, allowing researchers to envision a compound moving through a living system and giving them an idea of how that stimulus might react in a human. As animals are similar to humans in many ways and are vulnerable to over 200 of the same health problems that humans are susceptible to, they are very effective models for this research.[2] However, animals are not always used in biomedical research. In fact, animal research is just one among two other research techniques. In vitro research involves the study of isolated molecules, cells, and tissues. These samples can come from humans, animals, micro-organisms, or even plants. In vitro techniques provide researchers with useful information about the interactions between molecules, within or between cells, and also about how organs function. Another technique is studying human subjects and populations. This research gives scientists information about the body in health and disease and about the distribution of diseases in society. Of course, it is also limited by what is considered ethical. These three methods of research are not meant to be alternative techniques, but rather complementary areas of study which together provide researchers with important data. Animal research itself falls under three broad types of scientific investigation. In pure research, experiments are not directed towards a directly applicable goal, but rather towards developing our understanding of how bodies function. This exploratory research can provide scientists with knowledge that can then be applied in later experiments. This form of research has proven very useful in the past. For instance, the circulatory system was first understood through vivisection, penicillin was discovered accidentally, and neurosurgeon Dr. Tipu Aziz, who is a member of Pro-test, a British group promoting animal testing in medical research, found that his research on understanding how monkeys’ brains function could be applied in the development a machine that could conquer many of the enfeebling symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. The second category of research is applied research, which, as its name indicates, focuses on outcomes with applicability, such as cures for diseases such as cancer or AIDS. The third category is known as toxicology research. This form of research tests the effects of toxins in animals. This is important in determining, for instance, whether certain drugs are safe for human testing by observing their effects in animal models. This process is considered a moral and legal imperative, as it would be nothing short of dangerous to give humans untested drugs. This method, however, is not foolproof (a fact which is sometimes used against it by opponents).[3] An example of this would be the trials of TGN1412, a monoclonal antibody which was thought capable of boosting the action of killer immune cells to help them fight cancer cells. The drug went through the same testing processes which all drugs must go through, meaning that it first had to be tested on tissue samples and later animals before arriving at human testing. The drug was shown to be safe during the non-human testing phase of the process, and so studies carried on to the next step and the drug was given to six voluntary men, all healthy and below the age of forty. Despite the results obtained earlier in the drug testing process, the six men experienced a serious reaction to the drug and had to be treated in intensive care. All six volunteers suffered from multiple organ failure, and two were said to be critically ill. The drug trial, or testing process, ceased as soon as the volunteers fell ill.[4] Despite unfortunate occasions such as the TGN1412 case, those in favor of animal experimentation contend that without animal experimentation, events such as these would occur far more frequently.

© Brian Gunn /IAAPEA

Animals are used in research only when there is no other way to answer scientific questions. When researchers need to observe what takes place in the whole living body under certain conditions, but the use of human subjects would be considered unethical, animals are used instead. Due to these restrictions on the use of animals, animal experimentation adds up to only a fraction of all biomedical research.[5] The welfare of animals used in research is undoubtedly important. There are good ethical, scientific, legal, and economical reasons for treating these animals as humanely as possible and using them in minimal numbers. It is the primary responsibility for many who work in laboratories, regardless of their roles, to look after the animals properly. From a purely scientific perspective, good science and good animal welfare go hand in hand. An animal that is kept under conditions which bring about stress or cause it pain is likely to negatively affect the results of any research it is used for. As a result, it is important to keep research animals in the best possible conditions, providing each species with what it needs and making sure that they receive care from professionals. Since what animals need is not always what people think they need, scientists are currently studying which environments different species prefer. This will allow them to recreate the preferred habitats of different animals more effectively, providing researchers with more stress-free animals which are suited for research. There are guiding principles for the proper use of animals in scientific research, known as the three R’s: the refinement of experiments so that distress or pain is minimal, the reduction of the number of animals used in a study, and the replacement of animal experiments with non-animal research whenever possible.

Most of the animals used in experiments are rats and mice, which make up nearly 95 percent of all animals used in research. Rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, farm animals, fish, and insects are also used and make up most of the remaining number. Less than one percent of the remaining research animals are cats, dogs, and non-human primates. The majority of these animals are specifically bred for laboratories.

Although some would deem this research archaic and fruitless, this is not at all accurate. Animal experimentation has proven itself to be of great benefit, and one can look to history in order to see this. One good example, the eradication of smallpox, was the result of research carried out on cows. The vaccinia vaccine against smallpox was developed from the cowpox virus used by Edward Jenner after noticing that farm workers who contracted cowpox appeared to be protected against smallpox. Advancements made from this research would eventually lead to the global eradication of smallpox.[6] The vaccine for Diphtheria, developed in the 1930’s, was also the result of animal research, this time using guinea pigs, rabbits, horses, and monkeys. This was yet another great achievement, as Diphtheria is a highly contagious and life threatening bacterial disease that was once among the leading causes of child death. While still a threat in some parts of the world (large outbreaks took place in Russia in the 1990’s), Diphtheria is rarely contracted in North America due to vaccination programs). Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, was another deadly disease and yet another major cause of death in children. The use of mice and rabbits in research led to the development of the vaccine for this disease during the 1940’s. Animal research was also a vital part of the creation of the Polio vaccine. Polio was among the most dangerous childhood diseases of the 20th century, crippling thousands of people, most of which were young children. During the 1950’s, mice and monkeys were used in order to create the polio vaccine, which essentially ended polio outbreaks in the western world. A program launched by the World Health Organization and others seeks to eventually eliminate the disease worldwide. Many other examples of deadly diseases for which vaccines were developed as a result of animal research can be listed. These include the vaccines for German measles, meningitis, and tuberculosis.[7] Keep in mind, however, that these cases only concern the production of vaccines. There are other areas within medical research which have been assisted greatly by animal experimentation. Many surgical procedures, for instance, were and continue to be developed via the use of animal models, including life-saving procedures once thought impossible. Heart valve replacement, now a common procedure, would not have been possible without results obtained from animal research. Other common procedures, such as organ transplantation and open heart surgery, were also developed similarly.[8] Whether one considers the production of drugs and vaccines or the development of surgical techniques, it is easy to see how animal research has benefited medical science.

Of course, it is also important to remember that these same experiments have also greatly benefited animal health, as animals have obviously also been the recipients of important vaccines and veterinary science has progressed due to similar, if not often the same, discoveries that have improved our understanding of human health and how to improve and maintain it. Sometimes it is easy to see animal experimentation as a technique that ignores the well-being of animals and only serves as a route to knowledge that focuses on humans, but this is not the case, and animals, both wild and domesticated, have benefited from animal research in some way or another.[9][10]

Due to the importance of biomedical research, many scientists have ardently defended animal research despite the great disapproval by those against the practice. Yet what of animal testing for cosmetics? Animals are also used for cosmetic research, though this practice is even more controversial than animal biomedical research and is even banned across the European Union. Many consider it the unnecessary abuse of animals for products that are simply not vital to humans. The use of animals in testing cosmetics does have its supporters, including neurosurgeon Professor Tipu Aziz (mentioned earlier) and neurophysiologist John Stein, another Oxford-based scientist. However, many scientists (including those that use animals in biomedical research) do not share this stance.[11] Indeed, it is not easy to defend such a position. Cosmetics, while significant to many, are rarely necessary or truly important unless they also have medical uses. The defense of animal testing in biomedical research that can benefit countless lives, though still certainly controversial, is at least understandable. It is difficult to say the same for cosmetics testing.

Though discomforting to some, animal experimentation has provided many bnefits in the past and continues to be an essential part of modern biomedical research. © Brian Gunn /IAAPEA

Yet despite the successes of animal experimentation in the past, and its beneficial uses in the future, there are many who maintain that there exist alternative procedures which can be substituted in place of animal experimentation, which is considered obsolete and abusive. It is important to look into any possible alternatives, allowing for the discovery of new procedures which can assist such important research. So what are these alternatives, and do they succeed in rendering animal experimentation unnecessary?

In-vitro research on human cell and tissue cultures is considered a superior technique to animal experimentation since it allows for the study of human disease without having to stress or harm an animal in hopes that it will respond in a way that provides scientists with helpful information.[12] It allows for the simplification of the system or disease being studied, and so the researcher is able to focus on a small number of components. Cells or tissues are obtained from human volunteers, surgical operations, biopsies, and post-mortem specimens. These samples are cultured by researchers and are useful for a variety of purposes. Despite also being noticeably controversial due to the potential for unethical procurement and uncompensated commercial use of human cells, the usefulness and benefits of this technique cannot be doubted. Epidemiological studies are also an excellent way of gathering information by studying and controlling diseases within a human population. These studies have been essential to our understanding of the link between smoking and lung cancer and were the first area of research to identify AIDS in the late 1970’s. It is also important to consider the value of clinical studies on human volunteers, which can yield significant results without the use of animals or any harm to humans. The number of individuals with both ordinary and terminal illnesses that are willing to volunteer for new drug or treatment trials, or be part of studies collecting data on their illnesses, are actually quite high. These studies consist of clinical non-invasive research performed with the highest ethical standards, and longitudinal epidemiological research. Autopsies and post-mortem studies are also significant and add to our understanding of pathological conditions by examining the tissues and organs of a deceased human. This form of research has provided science with much new information, and has been responsible for the discovery and description of thousands of diseases such as Legionnaire’s disease, viral hepatitis, aplastic anemia, and fetal alcohol syndrome. The purpose of this research is to determine the cause of death, the state of health of the person before he or she died, and whether any medical diagnosis and treatment before death was appropriate. The donation of one’s body to research has allowed for the creation of organ banks, providing researchers with access to the supply along with detailed information about the person’s medical history.[13]

Advances in technology have also allowed for new research techniques that have been similarly supported by opponents of animal research as well. By collecting detailed comprehensive records and maintaining cross references on the side effects of drugs or treatments and storing them in central databases, researchers can easily identify dangerous drugs or interactions. Post-marketing surveillance of patients can also identify unexpected side effects that could provide researchers with further data on a drug. This clinical observation of patient side effects led to the discovery of nitrogen mustard’s anti-cancer properties as well as the mood-elevating effects of tricyclic antidepressants. Also of great importance has been the development of non-invasive imaging. This method is used to create images of the body for clinical purposes (medical procedures which seek to reveal, diagnose, or examine disease) or medical science (including the study of normal anatomy and physiology). This technology includes the CT scan (computed tomography), MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), AMS (accelerator mass spectroscopy), MEG (magnetoencephalography), DTI (diffusion tensor imaging), ultrasound, and nuclear imaging. These are seen by many as alternatives to utilizing animal models in order to produce results specific to humans. These techniques all allow sophisticated, real time measurements of associations between structure and function in the human body and are extremely accurate, with resolutions possible down to single cells. Neuroscience in particular has benefited greatly from these advancements, as they allow direct, noninvasive studies of human neurophysiology.[14] Computer and mathematical modeling are also significant and have recently led to new treatments for breast cancer, AIDS, high blood pressure, and even the assisted development of new prosthetics. Scientists are now able to mimic the shape and of molecules that are known to be therapeutic and actually improve their design to be even more effective. In a similar way, known toxic chemicals can be analyzed in order to predict their toxicity.[15]Many claim that by combining experiments such as these, we can do away with the archaic methods of animal experimentation, sparing animals from the stresses of the research lab, and allowing medical research to progress in a better way.

With so many procedures claimed to be effective alternatives to animal experimentation, what can possibly be said in the defense of animal experimentation? Many scientists defending animal research respond with the simple answer that they do use those “alternatives,” and, while definitely helpful, none of these additional methods can successfully replace animal experimentation as a source of scientific knowledge. By following the three R’s mentioned earlier, scientists limit their use of animals as much as possible when they carry out any research. Again, animals are used in research only when there remain no other ways of answering the questions faced by researchers. In the initial stages of biomedical research, tests are carried out using cells, DNA, proteins, and in-vitro techniques. Once a point is reached where no experimental model can be substituted for a living organism, animal testing is considered. For example, no amount of testing on computer models or strings of cells can tell researchers what the likely effects of a drug on blood pressure would be due to the simple fact that neither of these possesses a circulatory system, blood, heart, and so on. Similarly, one cannot predict how a drug might be metabolized without introducing it to an organism with a liver. As a result of this, many scientists maintain that we must trial drugs on whole living organisms at some stage of the research process. We start at the lowest possible level, working with DNA from cell lines or the proteins that cause disease. Once those carrying out the research learn more about their topic, the level of complexity in the models they study increases. This may mean progressing to bacterial cells, then mammalian cells (from animals and humans), then into entire organs, and eventually into animals.[16]

It has been claimed that a computer program has been developed which correctly simulates an entire human body, and that this could replace the use of animals in biomedical research. This is, however, false. No such program exists, and it is doubtful that a computer powerful enough to properly simulate an entire human body exists either. While computer-simulated models are used in the early stages of medical research, they are models of simple proteins. Clearly these models are not even close to full organisms, and as a result are strictly limited in their applications. The technological sophistication necessary to replicate the amazing complexity and sensitive machinery of even the simplest animal organism, let alone the far more intricate human body, is just not available to us. And so, those who support animal experimentation claim that the question of why alternative methods are not used is a misleading one. They maintain that the experiments used that are not performed in animals are simply complementary to those performed in animals and help researchers understand the big picture of a disease or system.[17]

The controversy of animal research is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. © Brian Gunn /IAAPEA

But perhaps one should look at this matter differently. Perhaps it is not just about whether animal experimentation is or is not beneficial, or whether certain methods can or cannot replace animal experimentation. What of the animals themselves? Indeed, it cannot be denied that, as humanely as researchers must treat lab animals, biomedical research can definitely lead to discomfort, pain, and death for these animals. In research and testing, animals could be subjected to a variety of different experiments such as testing new drugs, infecting with diseases, poisoning for toxicity testing, burning skin, causing brain damage, implanting electrodes into the brain, maiming, blinding, and other procedures. This research can include protocols that cause great discomfort or pain at times, such as long term social isolation, electric shocks, withholding of food and water, or repeated breeding and separation of infants from mothers. When performing tests for toxicity, many animals are given the test substance repeatedly before succumbing to the effects of the substance and dying before the end of the study. There is also the possible discomfort brought about by restraining devices which prevent an animal from moving and hindering an experiment. Certain research projects require the immobilization of specific parts of an animal’s body, or in some cases its entire body. One type of experiment conducted at several major US universities included the immobilization of mice and rats in tubes, shocking their feet, suspending them by their tails, and forcing them to swim to avoid drowning. Researchers claim that these stress experiments had relevance to human anxiety and depression. Areas of research such as xenotransplantation (the transplanting of cells, tissues, or organs from one species into another species) and genetic engineering can cause extensive stress and death for animals. Genetic engineering certainly kills a considerable number of animals in the search for the production of animals with specific traits. This is due to the abnormalities and other diseased conditions which are produced in this process.[18] Unsurprisingly, these are not comforting thoughts, even if experiments like these have led to important progress in scientific knowledge. To those opposing animal research, these practices, even if potentially beneficial, are moral abominations.

It is quite clear that the debate concerning animal experimentation is often infused with emotion, but these are not emotional arguments. Rather, these are very important arguments for moral behavior towards animals, and must be taken seriously. Why is it that animals can be utilized in research but not humans? Is it due to their level of awareness (or lack thereof)? Is it because they lack rights, or at least the same rights, that humans have? Obviously, countless animals are able to sense and react to pain, and this is partly why they are used in experiments. However, that could also be a good reason to spare a creature from the stresses of experimentation. When one looks at it from this perspective, it is easy to see why those who oppose animal experimentation often see the research as sanctioned animal abuse. The matter of animal rights is also difficult to handle. Do animals have genuine rights? Opinions can vary from person to person depending on their beliefs, with some, for instance, believing that animals do not posses rights while others stating that animals do have rights, though these rights count for less than those of humans. However, it can be argued that animals do not need rights in order to be treated with care by simply recognizing the moral nature of humans. After all, humans have an awareness of moral ideas and understand the difference between right and wrong. With this in mind, one does not necessarily need to even grant animals rights in order to be obligated to behave morally towards them. Causing suffering or undeserved pain is understood to be morally wrong, even if the victims possess no rights or are animals instead of people. Since this behavior is inherently wrong, it diminishes the moral standing of the human causing it.[19]

One might also consider whether human superiority plays a part in this debate, but this topic is incredibly complex, and, again, opinions vary from person to person. Even then, it does not necessarily determine whether animal research is morally excusable or not. For instance, one can consider the moral nature and intellect of humans as part of the reason why we are superior, yet claim that those very qualities, particularly our moral understanding, is what can allow us to condemn animal research (as was discussed in the previous paragraph). Of course, some may also argue that human superiority is what allows us to use animals for biomedical research, which benefits us. Ultimately, the issues of animal rights and whether animals are inferior or equal to humans are simply too slippery, with many people reaching differing conclusions. This is unfortunate, as these topics are vital to the discussion, and finding the answers to these philosophical questions can potentially bring an end to the controversy.

Even if one considers the idea that animal experimentation is wrong, or morally questionable, abolishing it would certainly be problematic for many. Animal research has provided both humans and animals with many benefits, as one can see through the many advancements brought about by these experiments. By putting an end to animal research could possibly mean severely slowing the pace of scientific progress, as many scientists claim that animal research remains essential to the field of science. The cures for many diseases, including cancer, might be delayed due to this, along with many other significant discoveries. It can make for quite a dilemma.

It seems that the debate will continue well into the future, until great scientific advancements begin to provide researchers with complete alternatives to animal experimentation. Until then, the struggle between those who support animal research as a necessary tool of science and those who condemn it as animal abuse will continue. It is certainly not a simple topic, and for many presents a great dilemma. Fueled with anger, many argue against it as the sanctioned abuse of animals, with some claiming that it is not necessary and others even asserting that it is not beneficial. Researchers who carry out animal research claim that it is indeed an important part of scientific research, and point to all the benefits it has provided us with in the past as proof that it is not a fruitless endeavor. The arguments and debates continue, but there is no end to the controversy, as it is clear that it will remain for long.

[1] “Research process.” Understanding Animal Research. (accessed August 26, 2012).

[2] “ANIMAL RESEARCH.” AMP. (accessed August 26, 2012).

[3] “Research process.” Understanding Animal Research. (accessed August 26, 2012).

[4] “Q&A: Drug trials .” BBC News. (accessed August 26, 2012).

[5] “Research process.” Understanding Animal Research. (accessed August 26, 2012).

[6] “BENEFITS.” Pro-Test: Standing up for Science. (accessed August 26, 2012).

[7] ” Animal Research Advances Human Health.” (accessed August 26, 2012).

[8] “The Role of Animal Research in Medical Advances.” (accessed August 26, 2012).

[9] “Animal health.” Understanding Animal Research. (accessed August 26, 2012).

[10] “Animal Research Advances Animal Health.” (accessed August 26, 2012).

[11]Jha, Alok, & Lewis, Paul. “Scientist backs animal testing for cosmetics.” The Guardian. (accessed August 26, 2012).

[12] “Humane Research.” The Truth about Vivisection. (accessed August 26, 2012).

[13] “Alternatives In Research.” (accessed August 26, 2012).

[14] Ibid

[15] “Humane Research.” The Truth about Vivisection. (accessed August 26, 2012).

[16] “Alternatives.” Pro-Test: Standing up for Science. (accessed August 26, 2012).

[17] Ibid

[18] “Harm and Suffering.” (accessed August 26, 2012).

[19] “Why animals don’t need ‘rights’.” (accessed August 26, 2012).