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.
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the verb debunk means “to expose the sham or falseness of”. According to this definition, I must state that the title of your post is misleading and (partially) inaccurate.
You are right to highlight some of the most significant advances in medical research to challenge the first argument. Yet, I will argue that this argument is poorly constructed. In multiple fields of research, animal experiments that were once considered as essential have become obsolete. Notable examples include carcinogenicity tests, toxicity tests, and skin irritation tests. In each of these examples, the shift to in vitro test approach not only minimized the need for extensive and unnecessary experimentation on animals (which, by definition, result in death of thousands of animals), but also improved clinical relevance of such tests.
Your second counter-argument is purely anecdotal. It is extremely difficult to say with absolute certainty that animals we use in different experimental condition (needless to say that we create, use, and kill such animals for the “sake of science”) do not experience unbearable pain. The methods we have developed (e.g., the grimace scale) to somehow assess the severity of the pain the animals experience is simply an effort to associate certain facial features with predefined, yet ambiguous, levels of pain.
Your final claim on the lack of alternatives to animal experimentation is simply false. For starters, you do not offer a counter argument and seem to hide behind a “short answer”. It is true that “statistical and mathematical models integrate data from biomedical research”. Yet, you fail to acknowledge the fact that many lines of biomedical research based on non-animal experimentation (different in vitro models, mathematical and statistical algorithms based on clinical data etc.) drive and shape future research.
Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your feedback, but I do not think my title is misleading. People who strongly oppose animal testing (and life threaten researchers who do such research: https://www.google.com/amp/s/torino.repubblica.it/cronaca/2019/08/23/news/torino_proiettile_al_professore_dell_ateneo_che_fa_una_ricerca_suila_vista_dei_macachi-234177229/amp/) deny any relevance of animal testing in research, and my list just proves them wrong.
My second counter-argument reports an official statement which is based on official reports. As you may know, a laboratory that performs animal testing has to report each experiment to an ethical committee, which has to approve them. If such lab does not follow rules strictly, it is shut down. Established protocols provide solid base to be confident that animals pain is relieved whenever possible. You mention the grimace scale, but you miss to mention all the other behavioural tests that confidently show how pain is relieved in animals. Unfortunately not all experiments can be performed without harming them, but luckily these are a small percentage.
About the third point, I agree that I was too short and not exhausting. In vitro models are far from replacing animal testing, because a drug has to be tested on a living organism to verify its efficiency and all possible side effects. An in vitro system cannot fully display this. We do not have the knowledge and competences to create such system. Analysis of clinical data helps research, but animal testing is needed before a drug is approved for clinical testing on people, so as I said models contribute to research, but do not replace animal testing. You mention systems and methodologies that come before (in vitro) or after (statistical analysis) the step when animal testing is (unfortunately) irreplaceable. Based on your confidence, you should feel confortable in testing yourself a drug that has been shown efficient only in an in vitro system, without any testing on a living organism before. Right? Otherwise your argument is not that convincing.
A last thing: when it will be really possible to replace animal testing with alternative methods, I will be happy. My point is just that at present we are not at that stage yet.