Animal Testing: Is it necessary?

Rabbit in Research for Animal Testing

Where does your view sit? Photo Credit: Understanding Animal Research- Flickr

As a science student nearing the end of my degree, this burning question is at the forefront of my mind. Since neuroscience may be the field that I major in, whether I want to use animals is an important factor to consider.

Animal research can be debated on many grounds: moral and ethical reasons, utility, hypothetical rewards etc. While these are crucial to deciding whether animal testing should be even conducted, it doesn’t stop the fact that it is currently happening.

In 2014, approximately 7 million animals were used in research and teaching in Australia. In the U.S, approximately 1 million animals were used. However, this value is excluding mice, birds, and rats- these other excluded animals could account for up to 90% of the actual testing done

So, other factors and personal opinion aside, the dilemma still remains.

Do we still need animals for testing?

Can you give me a second choice?

First, we need to look at the alternatives. We know that animal testing is happening, but people will continue to use it unless we can replace it with something.

So, what is out there?

Well, quite a bit actually.

Computer modelling is a promising field. Modelling can be used to do disease and treatment tests, interpret data from human clinical trials for neurological studies, and also carry out trials using virtual studies. Biophysics and bioinformatics are also growing fields using similar tech, along with most fields implementing some form of this research.

The Wyss Institute of Harvard University has developed revolutionary technology called organs-on-chips. Essentially microchips lined with human cells, they aim to mimic the functions and microstructure of a human’s living organs. Showing the effects on the whole body using different varieties of chips is now the next step in their development. Also, drug testing and cancer studies are both future possibilities for this tech.

In vitro testing is growing (no pun intended), using human tissue and cell culture samples for toxicology tests and other testing. Non-invasive imaging techniques such as MRI, CT scans, and DTI (diffusion tensor imaging) are all ways we can study science without using animal models.

Epidemiological studies, clinical trials, microdose tests. The list goes on and on about the new ways of testing that are being used as technology advances.

So if there are so many options, why hasn’t science moved away from animal testing? 


The Big Why?

Rat in Research for Animal Testing

Using animals can often be challenging. Photo Credit: Understanding Animal Research- Flickr

Some of you may be thinking that it is because of money.

But actually, many of the alternatives to animal testing are cheaper. There is no need for managing animal welfare, or controlling for variables such as stress that can cause invalid results. Though it is no secret that animal testing is big business for those providing the animals, the ethics councils would not be able to get away with such unnecessary use.

The main reason is that the scientific community says is that there is no adequate alternative to testing on a living, whole-body system. And currently, it does seem that the current alternatives are not enough to fully end animal testing.

But the key word is END. All these other methods can be used to dramatically reduce the amount of animals used.

So for the moment at least, animal testing is still not completely replaceable.

But the important part is that now it is not a matter of whether it WILL be necessary… but WHEN it will no longer be.

The way forward

No matter how much you argue about current importance of animal models, it seems that the future most likely holds a place where they will no longer, or rarely be used. When this will be: who knows.

This may seem like a big claim. But…

Scientists continually use the argument that animal models have helped make most of the major scientific breakthroughs of the last century. While this may be true, a century ago we didn’t have organs-on-chips, let alone a computer. As technology progresses, the alternatives will only continue to become better.

Cosmetic testing used to be mandatory on animal models. As of next year though, the Australian Government is banning cosmetic testing on animals, as well as the selling of any animal tested cosmetics. Many other methods, such as EpiSkin, have replaced the need.

Animals in US medical school used to be common practice. As of mid this year, all animal use has been banned, now replaced with other methods.

As for drugs? Animal models are used currently to decrease the amount of drugs for human trials. The issue is that their results don’t always cross over to human trials for many tests. So the drugs kept for human trials could all fail.

Something else to consider is this hypothetical scenario: a company is testing for a cancer drug and eliminates hundreds of options by animal trials. Several are now left. These then fail in human trials. From this, there is no way to know if any of the hundreds eliminated by animal trials might actually work for humans. If hundreds of neuroprotective drugs can work for mice, yet not work for humans, then why can’t the opposite be true in some cases?

This indicates that if a better alternative arises without animals, then it could be used instead to potentially bypass these issues.

Making decisions

So when it comes to animal testing, what should we do?

Despite whether you stand for animal rights, welfare or have no beliefs about animal testing, i think it should be part of our moral duty as scientists to take care and reduce the use of animals where possible.

If we would make the same choice of less tests on humans, then we should extend it to animals as well. As technology advances, the need for animal models will continue to decline.

Then it is up to us to make sure we make the change.

2 Responses to “Animal Testing: Is it necessary?”

  1. Matt Farrugia says:

    Awesome post, Nelson! It’s always amazing to look back one hundred years to a time before digital computers, and think about what the next century might bring. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time!

  2. Marie says:

    You have some great arguments in this post, especially about the eliminated animal trials that could work for human trials. It’s encouraging to hear that computer modelling and organs-on-chips may be the new way of testing in the future. Thanks for sharing!