What you should know about animal research

April 16, 2016 - 06:00
Article from University of Oslo

OPINION: Why animal testing is still necessary.

(Illustrative photo: Colourbox.)

During WWII people in concentration camps were tortured in a variety of horrible medical experiments, often leading to death, to gain scientific knowledge. It was globally recognized that this type of human right abuse should never happen again and that experimental research on humans needed to be strictly controlled on both the scientific as well as ethical aspects.

In 1964 the declaration of Helsinki was signed by all members of the World Medical Association, stating that ‘Medical research involving human subjects must conform to [...] adequate laboratory and, where appropriate, animal experimentation’. This, amended and revised, document still serves today as the guiding document of ethical principles for doctors involved in medical research.

As a result, new medication is in general not allowed to be tested in humans before it has been tested on animals.

From mice to men

The reason why mammals often are used in experiments is that mammals, although they look very different on first sight, have many similarities with humans.

Mice, for instance, share 97% of their genes with humans, which make them suitable for basic research. Or pigs, whose hearts are similar in size and structure to humans and are thus regularly used for cardiovascular research. Obviously, there is no model which is a perfect match to humans, nevertheless specific animals are used to answer specific research questions.

A long list of lifesaving research

Science wouldn't be where it is today without the knowledge we've gained from animal experiments.

For example, diabetes was once a highly feared disease that most certainly led to death. This changed due to the discovery of insulin in the 20th century. It all started when scientists removed the pancreas from a dog and then discovered that the dog developed diabetes. Step by step, researchers discovered that specific cells in the pancreas were producing a substance that regulated the blood sugar.

They continued their research by giving a diabetic dog repeated injections of mashed pancreatic cells from a healthy dog, and as a result the diabetic dog was relieved of symptoms. Ultimately, animal research led to the isolation of insulin from cattle, which saved the lives of millions of diabetic patients all over the world.

Today, thanks to further research, this animal insulin is replaced by synthetically produced insulin.

The discovery of insulin is just one example, but animal research has led to many new treatments, development of surgical techniques and equipment like MRI scanners. These advances combined with improved lifestyle factors result in longer-lived lives.

There are alternatives

Researchers have developed alternatives for animal experiments, which can take over parts of the necessary steps in drug development.

An example of an alternative is the recently developed human 3D lung model which can replace inhalation studies with animals. In this model, human lung cells are grown in a culture dish. These cells behave similar to lung cells in the human body. This makes it possible to study the effects of gasses and volatile compounds on lung cells without using animals.

Another example is the ability to grow human stem cells into beating heart cells. When medications are added to these cells, researchers can observe whether this disturbs the rhythmic contraction of the heart cells. These disturbances are a good indication if cardiac arrhythmias can be expected when humans are treated with these medications.

…but still with limitations

Unfortunately, however, not all animal research can be replaced by animal free experiments.

One reason is that there are no alternative methods that can mimic the whole human body. For instance, studying how cancer spreads from one part of the body to another is impossible with current alternatives. Actually, to study any process that involves more than one organ requires the use of an animal, as the interaction that takes place between different organs is very complex. Up till now it is impossible to replicate this in a cell culture dish.

Researchers must follow strict rules

The declaration of Helsinki also states that ‘the welfare of animals used for research must be respected’.  In Norway the administrative authority responsible for the use of research animals is The Norwegian Food Safety Authority (NFSA).

Researchers who want to perform animal experiments write in a lengthy document the purpose of the study, the benefit to the public and the scientific community, as well as the exact experimental details (amount of animals, treatments, etc.), the level of expected discomfort for every planned action and the maximum allowed harm to the animals, also called humane endpoints.

NFSA will consider whether the discomfort of the animal outweighs the contribution to the public and science.

Obliged to look into alternatives – the three R’s

A key part when applying to NFSA for animal testing, is the three R’s: replacement, reduction and refinement.

By describing each of these R’s, the researcher has to show in which way he or she has looked into alternatives like the earlier described cell culture models (replacement), how to minimize the number of animals (reduction), and how optimal care is reached with minimal discomfort by using for example painkillers or anaesthesia (refinement).

Additionally, to make sure the animals suffer as little as possible, all animals are carefully observed throughout the whole study. When an animal reaches a humane endpoint, the animal will immediately be euthanized to prevent further discomfort. In practise this means that researchers have to check their experimental animals frequently, even if it is late in the evening or during the weekend.

The inevitable dilemma

Animal testing causes dilemmas for funding agencies like the heart foundation or the cancer foundation. On one hand they need the money from the general public to be able to fund ongoing and new research, on the other hand the public is often demanding animal free experiments.

In 2014 a project supported by the Dutch Heart Foundation wherein dogs would be used to test an improved pacemaker model was not executed, because of huge pressure from the Dutch public. In addition the Heart Foundation lost donors as it was highlighted that they were supporting these animal experiments.

A more transparent policy about animal research from foundations could contribute to a better understanding from the general public.

To exploit or not

The situation in the Netherlands highlights the difficult question we will always reach in the bottom line: Is it acceptable to let animals suffer in order to improve our own health and quality of life?

Like with all other animal exploitation – regardless of whether we exploit them for their fur, meat or milk, or in medical research – in the end of the day, it’s a matter of ethics.

There’s no doubt that the work to reduce the use of animals in research is something that needs to be further addressed, and hopefully we will be able to find adequate alternatives for all kinds of research. But until we reach that stage, medical progress is not possible without exploiting animals.

About the author:
Mieke Louwe is a postdoctoral researcher at the Research Institute of Internal Medicine and the K.G. Jebsen Inflammation Research Centre, Oslo University Hospital and Oslo University

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