Is animal testing necessary for medical research?

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Is animal testing necessary for medical research?

Everyone agrees that animals used in medical research suffer. Sometimes people argue about how much animals suffer. But there are many very different opinions about whether experiments on animals are good science. Do the experiments result in medical discoveries for humans? Or are there other ways to make these medical discoveries? Two experts, Laurie and Helen, give their opinions.

YES - Laurie


Pro-Test march in Oxford, UK. Edmond Terakopian / PA Archive / Press Association

Medical research is a difficult thing. The human body is the most complex machine we know. It has trillions of cells, each cell has billions of molecules, many of the molecules have tens of thousands of atoms. These machines made of molecules do their jobs perfectly. They work together in an amazing way. On one level molecules communicate with each other over very small distances and on a much larger level organ like the heart and the liver communicate with each other, too. Medical researchers need ways of copying these levels of communication. In the past century so many ways of investigating the body have been discovered – growing cells, taking photographs of the inside the body without harming it, and computer models. These are all powerful methods to help fight disease but none of them can copy the way the body really works.

Without the use of animals in their research, it would be really difficult for scientists to develop new treatments, and to do research to increase our knowledge. For example, it was Alan Lloyd Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley’s work on the nerves of squid that explained the way nerves communicate. And it was John C Eccles’ work on cats that first showed the way information travels in the brain across its synapses. With this research John C Eccles earned a share of the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology, with Hodgkin and Huxley. Without their work on animals, we would know a lot less about the way our bodies work and how to treat them.

NO - Helen


PETA’s action in the US. Lai Seng Sin / AP / Press Association Images

Absolutely! The human body – indeed most living systems – is extremely complex. This is why animals are not good models for human medicine.

Humans are different from other animals in many ways. This means information from animals cannot be used for humans very well.

It is easy to understand that when a drug or medical treatment is developed, it must be tested in a living system. Using animals is using the wrong system. The differences between animals and humans are very great so for a complete biological system those differences become even greater. We need to do testing in a way that stops the risks coming from these differences. Instead testing must be directly useful to humans.

We must balance medical progress against the delays and big mistakes which come from animal experiments. The thalidomide disaster is one of the most famous. Tens of thousands of children were born with very bad physical problems, for example, having no arms or legs. These problems were not predicted in animal tests. And there are many other examples. It is true that some discoveries are the result of animal experiments but it does not mean that the discoveries could not have been made in other ways. Dr John McArdle said that historically, vivisection – operating on live animals - has been like a slot machine in a casino. If researchers pull the lever enough times, some good things will come by luck. This kind of thinking is not good science. Good science - useful and efficient science - is what we must look for.

YES - Laurie


It’s very true that there are big differences between animals and humans. But part of research is thinking about these differences and choosing the best models to copy the system we are testing. Fortunately, scientists have found many ways of making the differences smaller between animals and humans, such as the use of transgenic animals – animals changed genetically to be more similar to humans. This has other benefits, including a shorter time between generations of the same animal. In this way scientists can do experiments not possible using humans (even if we forget the problems of what is right and wrong).

I’d love to hear ideas for ways to replace these animal models that stop the risks coming from the differences between animals and humans. But at the moment there are none. And developing these methods is still just a dream. To think we can find other methods gives the wrong idea. We can say that we can make medical discoveries without using animals. But if we cannot suggest other methods, this is a waste of time.

The thalidomide problems came from not enough animal testing. At the time it was not usual to give pregnant animals drugs before medical use. After scientists knew about the effects of thalidomide, experiments using pregnant animals confirmed the results. Then tests using pregnant animals became usual.

NO - Helen

Even when changed genetically, there is no single animal model that can really copy the complex human body. There are far too many unknown differences that cannot all be thought of. Instead, we now have scientific (not story book) methods such as using microchips and using very small doses. These methods study the effects of drugs on a complete living system. They study a human living system. This stops mistakes that come from the differences between animals and humans resulting in information that is not useful for humans.

Studies have shown that other methods can predict effects found in humans better than information from animals.

Later results from testing thalidomide on pregnant animals only resulted in defects when given to white New Zealand rabbits at doses between 25 to 300 times that given to humans. And to certain kinds of monkeys at ten times the dose. Even if the drug had been tested on those kinds of animals by luck, thalidomide would still have been sold. This is because most animals showed no negative effects. When they did show effects, it was after much higher doses than given to humans.

YES - Laurie

It is crazy to say that microchips and small doses can study the effects of drugs on a living system. How can a chip copy a human heart? Small doses can be useful for studying how a drug is accepted by a system but gives very little information on how well it can treat an illness. Other methods are already used in research, but we can’t expect them to replace animal tests in the near future. It’s true that thalidomide doesn’t affect all kinds of animals. This is why drugs are tested on a variety of carefully chosen kinds of animals. These models will never be perfect but, as any scientist will tell you, no test is perfect. We must use the best model we have, and sometimes this means using animals.

But you are forgetting the most important use of animals in science – basic research. Without animals, we would know far less about the way the heart works, how digestion works, how hormones work, and a lot of other information which none of your ‘other methods’ can hope to find. So if we value progress in medical science, animal research is necessary.

NO - Helen

Certainly we can say that no model is perfect. But using humans for testing is far more useful than information from using animals. Even the US Federal Drug Administration says that nine out of ten drugs ‘proven’ successful in animal tests fail in human tests. This questions the argument for using animals, and asks about all the drugs that failed in animals which might have worked in humans. How many cures for cancer were missed?

In the past, much research has been based on animals because we didn’t know any better. Today we understand far more about the dangers of using information about animals to treat humans. And we have scientific research methods including mass spectrometry, genetic maps, new ways of using photography and advanced computer models which can copy parts of the human body.

Very ill patients don’t care whether a cancer drug works on a mouse, or that some disease can be cured in another animal. That only gives them false hopes. These people need real cures using real science – not old fashioned animal experiments which give false hopes.

Laurie Pycroft is one of the people who started Pro-Test, a British group that supported animal testing in scientific research. Pro-Test was ended in February 2011, but a related organization, Speaking of Research, is active in the US.

Helen Marston is the head of Humane Research Australia, which protests against animal experiments.

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