Image: Marcel Burkhard
Animal testing is historically a topic that inspires discussion, from nation-wide campaigns down to student newspaper debates. Before this article proceeds any further, I want to specify that this article focuses on animal testing for scientific and medical purposes. Cosmetic animal testing, banned in the European Union, is morally unjustifiable, and the animal-free alternatives so widely available on the high street clearly show that it is an unnecessary evil.
The morality of animal testing in science lies in murkier waters. While there have been huge advancements in our ability to use cell biology and computer modelling in research, certain diseases and disorders simply cannot currently be modelled without using animals that share large percentages of our DNA and also similar physiological systems.
The alternative to using models in these areas would be to stop research altogether, and that is simply not an option when illnesses such as Alzheimer’s Disease, which affects 44 million people worldwide, are so poorly understood. Animal models of diseases have contributed immensely to our understanding of various diseases, and, without them, we would not have treatments such as HAART, the cocktail of antiviral drugs that enables people infected with HIV to have more normal lives.
However, critics will point to the litany of failed treatments for diseases which looked promising in animal models, only to fail to translate to humans – the average rate of successful translation from animal models to human in anti-cancer drug studies stands at a disappointing eight per cent.
The failure of such studies is due to poor science practice as much as bad modelling, and the use of animal lives to conduct bad science is a problem which must be cleaned up by the field.
One clear fact that burns through this debate is that open-mindedness from both sides will be key to finding a solution suitable for all – testing that can help understand currently incurable diseases of mankind, without harming rabbitkind or mousekind or zebrafishkind in the process. Open-mindedness from scientists to funding and pursuing non-animal methods, and having an open debate about the use of animal models – especially in areas where current models are hitting a brick wall, such as in stroke research – is needed. What is not needed, is the close-mindedness showed by organisations such as Peta, who make ridiculous statements about testing that serve no purpose but to drive researchers further away from a dialogue that, in some areas of science, needs to happen. No scientist will engage in a debate that simply paints them as a heartless monster who is ambivalent to the suffering of animals.
No, instead, organisations that engage in proactive funding of realistic alternatives, such as the DHT or the verbose, government-funded National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs for short), need to be promoted over mindless fearmongering.
While the figures on government contribution to ending animal testing are grim, equally disappointing is that an organisation like Peta, which claims to want to end animal testing, is an equally poor funder into alternatives. On its website, Peta boasts that it has funded “$1.8 million” to date into alternatives to animal testing. What Peta does not advertise is that it spends over half that on merchandising every year.
In summary, if you are a science student feeling a moral dilemma coming on, there are steps you can take: find out more about the efficacy of the animal models used in your field, and whether or not suitable alternatives exist. In many cases, they do not, but surely it is imperative that science keeps fighting for treatments to cancer and other diseases. And it should do it using the best models available in that fight, so keep an open mind to reliable science organisations like the DHT, whose research could see cancer cured one day using a computer chip.