In this article I would like to make some clarification about animal testing. Animal activists raise usually three issues to fight the use of animals in medical research:
- Animal testing is useless and never helpful in research;
- Animals undergo unbearable pain during testing;
- Alternative methods could replace animal testing in biomedical research.
In the following lines I will debunk these beliefs one by one.
The first is an easy one. It is enough to examine medical advancements achieved thanks to animal testing. Leaving aside discoveries in basic research, I will focus on a selection with high impact at clinical level. Let’s start with vaccines for smallpox, anthrax, rabies, typhoid and cholera, which were developed in the 19th century thanks to studies on cattle, sheeps, dogs, rabbits, mice and rats. During the 1900s, studies on guinea pigs allowed Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi to discover vitamin C, reaching a milestone in basic nutrition, and tests on rabbits validated the first local anaesthetics. Thanks to animal testing, in the 1910s it was possible to perform the first blood transfusion, in the 20s it was discovered the role of insulin, in the 30s vaccines for tetanus and diphtheria were developed and anticoagulants discovered. In the 40s surgeons could use for the first time the heart-lung machine when performing open heart surgery and in the 50s they learnt to perform hip replacements, kidney transplantation and to implant pacemakers. In the 70s the first chemotherapy against leukemia was tested on animals, and in the last 40 years animal testing helped medicine to improve prevention (meningitis vaccine), diagnosis (MRI) and therapies (vaccine for cervical cancer, new treatments for breast and prostate cancer, deep brain stimulation for Parkinson disease, gene therapy for muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis). Just to name a few.
Let’s move on to the pain. As Rita Levi Montalcini – Italian Nobel Prize winner in 1986 for Medicine – wrote in the Italian preface of the book “Use of animals in biomedical research” edited by American Medical Association: “94% of the animals tested are not exposed to suffering or pain is reduced to the minimum thanks to pain-relieving drugs. The remaining 6% is subjected to treatments that cause pain because the purpose of such experiments is to produce drugs that soothe the pain. Any process that mitigates it would nullify its purpose.”
Now the last point. The short answer is that there are no alternative methods. Statistical and mathematical models integrate data from biomedical research. In fact, mathematicians and statisticians ask scientists for their data from animal testing experiments, to develop feasible models, and it doesn’t work in the other way.