The Role of Animal Experimentation in Scientific Progress and its Ethical Considerations

Everyday products that you likely own, tissue paper, sticky notes, contact lenses have all been tested on animals for their efficacy and safety. Animal testing refers to any experiments or procedures conducted on live animals to gain scientific advances, assess effectiveness of novel drug candidates and test safety of consumables products (cosmetics, food additives etc). 

Most common laboratory animals include murine, fish, guinea pigs, primates and dogs which can be subject to different experimentations: food and water deprivation, drug or disease exposure, surgery followed by recovery. As such procedures potentially cause psychological and physical distress, the United Kingdom (Animals Act 1986) and European Union (Directive 2010/63/EU) have imposed strict regulations on animal use for scientific research. The protection and welfare of animals are key priorities and all conducted experiments must comply with such legislations. 

In the case that animal testing is indispensable (no other alternatives) and that it will induce great benefits for humanity, there are few cases where it is morally acceptable to harm a few animals. This is however to be done using a set of principles “Three R’s” – Reduction, Refinement, Replacement.

  • Reduction: reducing the amount of animals used in the experiments 
  • Refinement: refining the experiment so that animal sufferings are reduced by using less invasive techniques. Animals are also to receive increased medical care. 
  • Replacement: replacing animal focused experiments with other alternatives including cell culture usage instead of whole animals, computational theoretical models, human volunteers etc 

The importance of using animal models ethically is needed for successful scientific advancement as:

  • Improving our biological understanding to fight diseases and direct innovative therapeutics for patients
  • Disease models to replicate the human conditions for example using rodent specific experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) to model human multiple sclerosis, a chronic neuroinflammatory disease with fatigue, motor and cognitive symptoms 
  • Drug safety tests as animal experimentations (pre-clinical trials) help eliminate ineffective or dangerous candidates before they are tested in humans (clinical trials)

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In a letter to the British Medical Journal, pharmacologist William DH Carey highlighted the importance of animal testing “We have 4 possible new drugs to cure HIV. Drug A killed all the rats, mice, and dogs. Drug B killed all the dogs and rats. Drug C killed all the mice and rats. Drug D was taken by all the animals up to huge doses with no ill effect. Question: Which of those drugs should we give to some healthy young human volunteers as the first dose to humans (all other things being equal)? 

To the undecided (and non-prejudiced) the answer is, of course, obvious. It would also be obvious to a normal 12-year-old child…

An alternative, acceptable answer would be, none of those drugs because even drug D could cause damage to humans. That is true, which is why Drug D would be given as a single, very small dose to human volunteers under tightly controlled and regulated conditions.”