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Animal-based research is still relevant and necessary

Drug development is a slow process involving years, even decades, of research and animal models have always been integral to this work. But progress in translating animal work into human benefits has been…

Animals are not just an incidental first choice of research method. usda/Wikimedia Commons

Drug development is a slow process involving years, even decades, of research and animal models have always been integral to this work. But progress in translating animal work into human benefits has been uncertain.

A recent article published on this site considered this alongside technological advances and asked whether research on animals is now irrelevant. And, if so, why we persist in using them. I will be providing a counter argument to the article, which concludes we should stop using animals in research.

Not a casual choice

First, let’s put to bed the idea that research scientists treat animals as merely a means to an end, or that they are an incidental first choice of research method.

All scientists who work with animals spend a significant proportion of their time applying for approval from their institutional animal ethics committee for their work, and ensuring that approval is maintained. The committee is comprised of vets, experienced researchers, members of animal welfare organisations and independent people who are not associated with animal-based research, or with the institution.

It’s the responsibility of the scientist to meet the requirements of the Australian Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes. Failure means the denial of access to animals for research. And under New South Wales legislation, the penalty for cruelty to animals carries an imprisonment sentence of two years or more. Similar rules apply in all Australian states and territories. So, the consequences for deviating from accepted ethical guidelines are well understood and severe.

And it’s cheaper, quicker and easier to first test drugs using computer models and tissue cultures. This is why most researchers make a concerted effort to screen potential drugs in these systems, and only select the best performing ones to test in animal models.

So, ethical issues aside, there’s also a financial drive to minimise animal use.

Researchers are very aware that animals aren’t people. Obviously animal responses aren’t the best possible predictor of treatment effects or side-effects in individual humans. But, what most scientists study are evolutionarily conserved physiological processes, that is, processes that are similar across different species.

Say someone is developing a drug that should act on opioid receptors. The questions researchers ask are – does the drug target what it’s supposed to, and then, does that give rise to a benefit in treating a disease? To this end, mouse opioid receptors work just as well as human ones.

Far from treating animals like small humans, individual animal models and even strains within individual animals are analysed many times over for their suitability to the research being done, and constantly improved until the best possible parallel is found. One strain of mouse, for instance, is very good for replicating a human-like pathology of asthma compared to others that barely develop any signs of respiratory illness. Instead of rejecting all mouse models of asthma as useless, researchers choose the strain that allows them to best approximate the problem.

Researchers choose the strain of animal that allows them to best approximate the problem they are working on. Ilmari Karonen (editing)/Wikimedia Commons

Genomics and animal models

The revolution in biotechnology over the last two decades has given rise to various disciplines with the suffix “-omics”. They involve the large-scale study of subjects using a variety of molecular, cellular and computational techniques. Proteomics, for example, refers to the study of the entire family of proteins, including their structure and function, in a given organism.

Disciplines such as proteomics give the impression that they spell the end of animal-based research. But what they actually do is provide researchers with the necessary tools to design animal experiments. They enable researchers to look across the genomes of different species, compare the genes and proteins they’re interested in with those in humans, and make informed research decisions.

The other common misconception is around the discipline of genomics, which has led to identifying genes implicated in human diseases. This doesn’t eliminate the need for animals in research. Many genetic mutations actually cause disease (as in the case of this very interesting Pakistani family) or increase the risk of developing one.

What these studies tell us is that a gene is related to a disease (an association) and not necessarily the way it is involved. The use of genetically modified animals lets us study how the gene in question affects the development of an organism from embryo to adulthood, its physiology and behaviour at each of these stages, as well the minutiae of the cellular and molecular processes affected.

This is an incredibly powerful tool for identifying novel targets for therapy. But it doesn’t preclude the use of animals in research.

Lack of suitable alternatives

The list of proposed alternatives to animal research proposed in the article calling for an end to it include prevention programs, epidemiological studies, autopsies, in vitro research in cell cultures and computer modelling.

The first three are not alternatives at all. They don’t actually lead to the development of novel treatments, just a better understanding of the efficacy of existing ones. Meanwhile the last two are already commonly used in most labs, but prior to and in conjunction with work with animals.

And as powerful as modern computers are, there’s still simply no comparison – the idea of successfully simulating the complexity present in organism-level biological systems is a pipe dream at present.

We must be careful not to confuse the effectiveness of animal models with the ethics of using animals for research. People who seek to promote an end to animal-based research claim to have scientific reasons to discontinue it. But this is diversionary, a reframing in much the same way the “scientific controversy” of intelligent design seeks to draw attention away from theological arguments of creationism.

There are many valid and pressing ethical questions that surround the use of living organisms in any capacity, whether in research, farming, for companionship or conservation. These questions constantly drive us toward better practices that minimise animal suffering. But the effectiveness or necessity of animal-based research – regardless of what we think of it – is not in question.

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28 Comments sorted by

  1. Dorothy Bishop

    Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology at University of Oxford

    The point you make about effectiveness vs ethics is very important. Animal rights campaigners always come up with the argument that animal research is at best unnecessary and at worst misleading, but as you point out, that is simply untrue. Yes, you can find examples of useless, misleading studies by cherrypicking the evidence, but there is an enormous amount of research beneficial to humankind that would not have been possible without animal studies.
    I often wonder whether the animal rights lobby really believe that all animal researchers are either ignorant, deluded fools or sadists, which is implied by their arguments.
    BTW, I don't work on animals, but much of the neuroscientific and genetic knowledge I rely on comes from animal studies.

    1. Joel Mayes

      Bicycle Mechanic

      In reply to Dorothy Bishop

      Dorothy writes

      "I often wonder whether the animal rights lobby really believe that all animal researchers are either ignorant, deluded fools or sadists, which is implied by their arguments"

      I think you've got it in one. All the arguments I've heard from the animal right lobby come back to this statement which they hold to be so self evident that is requires no supporting evidence.

    2. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Dorothy Bishop

      Hi Dorothy, you say 'Animal rights campaigners always come up with the argument that animal research is at best unnecessary'. That's quite an assertion!

      I don't. Animal experimentation has given humans lots of useful information.

      I'd simply suggest experimentation on animals is an ethical issue - because it involves pain and death. I think proponents should have an answer to that, even if it's just 'humans are better than animals'.

      What do you think?

  2. Kris Rogers


    If the development of therapeutics for human use is the primary aim of biomedical research using animals then it appears like there are some serious issues of quality that have to be examined:

    If biomedical scientists don't taking the use of animals in invasive research lightly, then it is quite disconcerting that the journals in this area make not requirements for justification of sample size (0/48 of the studies in that systematic…

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    1. Kris Rogers


      In reply to Kris Rogers

      Whups, apologies for my typos guys, problem between keyboard and chair.

    2. Swetha Srinivasa Murali

      PhD Scholar at University of Sydney

      In reply to Kris Rogers

      Kris, you've made a couple of very valid points. As for a need in improving quality of animal research, there is no doubt that there is a LOT of room for improvement. It's a slow process to find successful models, and one of the reasons that often holds researchers back is funding. Another, is that these studies don't always generate publications.

      As for problems with reporting, a lot of groups working with models where the rationale for using them, as well as necessary numbers and methods are already well-established, often neglect to report this basic information as there is a perception this is assumed knowledge. This is, of course, not true in many cases. I think the standards of reporting in journals have a long way to go, especially where publishing raw data is concerned. This is changing, though, with a genuine move towards open-access and transparent publishing.

  3. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    Across the whole spectrum of the biomedical and life sciences animals are used in research everywhere, all the time, every day.

    If there was an alternative to using animals, scientists would be doing it.

    Is it acceptably safe and ethical to begin human clinical trials of a novel drug, for example, if the only toxicology data we have comes from computational chemistry and cell cultures, without animal testing first? No.

    As another commenter mentions above, do the animal rights lobbyists really…

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    1. Rob Buttrose

      University of Melbourne

      In reply to Luke Weston

      The point is that a whole lot of research is carried out where the benefits in no way justify the treatment of the animals involved.

      Yes, scientists are deluded, ethically deluded, if they think because there is something they want to find out, and they can only find it out by experimenting on animals, it is morally justified. Not at all, of course not, a monstrous idea when you think about it.

      Unfortunately, the Code of Practice enshrines this delusion, citing as justification of research…

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  4. Rachel Armstrong

    Senior Study Manager

    Excellent article, very well argued. Couldn't have put it better myself!

  5. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Murali makes a good case for the relevance of testing on animals to humans.

    She also makes a good point that using scientific arguments to promote an ethical viewpoint can be diversionary, Ethical vegetarians sometimes make a case that meat is bad for humans - which is a red herring.

    However, that brings us to the question of ethics. I don't think Murali can just say 'Ethics aside ...'. I'd argue when pain, torment, perverse breeding and death are part of a scientific procedure, you need to justify it from a moral standpoint.

  6. Shirley Birney


    One needs to ask why Australia has to perform tests on some six million animals every year and why the results are less than transparent. The WA government advised in 2010 that information on animal testing will no longer be made available to the public, despite taxpayers’ funding towards research.

    The acts of extreme cruelty at the Charles Darwin University NT where the ombudsman stated that the university’s management of cattle and horses was "tardy, inadequate and not proportionate to the…

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  7. Lisa Ann Kelly


    Someday studies will be done on the human brain to learn why some humans can be so compassionless, heartless, and inhumane toward non-human animals. It is probable that these animal abusers (and vivisectors, you are they) were raised to believe that non-humans are of less value and feel less pain. Or perhaps the studies will show it is purely a genetic defect.

    Are vivisectors sadists? Of course they are. Vivisectors, zookeepers, circus handlers, factory farmers. It is daunting to see how…

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  8. douglas leith


    Animal experiments never were relevant or necessary. It has never been possible to base human medicine on another species. Humans and mice went our separate ways 65 million years ago. It is not even possible to transfer results from mice to rats;

    Animal 'tests' are wrong 92% of the time for drug testing..."92% of new drugs fail in clinical trials, after they have passed all the safety tests in animals" US Food and Drug Administration (2004) Innovation or Stagnation, Challenge and Opportunity…

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  9. douglas leith


    This is how drug co's would test drugs if they wer not seeking the legal protection derviced from animal 'tests', they would microdose. Firstly drugs would be tested on human cells, then on a computer model of the human body and then be microdosed in humans. see drugtestingconference. com

    "Animal tests are done for legal reasons and not for scientific reasons. The predictive value of such studies for man is meaningless." Dr James D Gallagher, Lederle Laboratories

    "90% of our work is done for…

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  10. J T....


    Isn't it interesting that veterinarians mainly use human medications to treat their patients.

    1. J T....


      In reply to Monika Merkes

      The 'some' is the most important part of your reply. Most (almost all) veterinary drugs are derived from humans.

  11. Simon Mould

    Environmental Science Student

    Whilst there may be no practical alternative at present to some invasive research on animals, that is by no means justification enough to sideline moral considerability.

    Whilst I understand that the focus of this article is not on moral justification, I do not accept that it is possible to form an argument or make a responsible decision on this matter with the 'practical' and 'moral' in isolation from each other. Matters of life, death, and suffering can rarely (if ever) be considered in a truly…

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    1. Lisa Ann Kelly


      In reply to Simon Mould

      Douglas Leith said it best: "Human medicine cannot be based on other species."

      There are always better alternatives when the original premise is wrong. I agree with all that you wrote, all but the first clause of your first sentence.

  12. Shirley Birney


    Since some 60 percent of all human diseases and 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases afflicting humans are zoonotic, may I say with some assurance that the animal testing laboratories have a serious credibility problem?

  13. Lisa Ann Kelly


    Don't look now, Monica-----you just yanked the rug right out from under yourself. Neat trick.

  14. Helen Marston

    CEO Humane Research Australia Inc.

    Interesting article. The author acknowledges that animals are not appropriate models for human medicine yet perfectly illustrates the casual ‘best we’ve got’ attitude. Other species are not predictive of human outcomes and we therefore need methodologies that are. Using a model that ‘best approximates the problem’ is simply not good enough. Overseas researchers have government funded institutions dedicated to the development and validation of alternative methodologies. They are using microdosing…

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  15. Nyree Walshe

    logged in via Facebook

    As a medical scientist I have to agree with Helen
    Marston that there are better and more modern ways to pursue scientific and medical ends than animal use. I also believe that the transfer of results from animal studies to human applications is dangerous and misguided.
    However my main argument against animal use is ethical.
    I make no apologies for having a compassionate and moral view of these practices. I myself was trained as a scientist using animals in Zoology classes, and ,yes, it is…

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  16. Rob Buttrose

    University of Melbourne

    You can argue that research on animals is the only way we can find some stuff out. It is a different question whether we should do such research or not. It is undoubtedly also true that experimenting on people is the only way we can find some stuff out. But we don't in general do these experiments and no factual claims by a researcher about how useful such they might be be will persuade us otherwise. The ends do not justify the means. Similarly, no factual claims by a researcher about animal…

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  17. Lisa Ann Kelly


    @ Rob Buttrose

    Thank you for your comment. I think the use of the word "abominations" sums it all up. Good comment.