Guest Post on Animal Research: Animal Research Is an Ethical and Vital Tool to Fight Disease

[Ed. Note: A few weeks ago, we had a post comparing the protections offered to humans and animals used in research, and it prompted quite a stir.  We thought the issues merited more discussion from both sides, and therefore solicited blog posts from two divergent perspectives: Theodora Capaldo, President of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society and Tom Holder, founder of Speaking of Research.  Mr. Holder's post is below and Dr. Capaldo's post can be found here.  As always, we welcome discussion via the comment thread, but request that your comments be respectful and focused on the topic rather than the speaker.]

By Tom Holder

The Benefits

In the US alone there are over 95 million prescriptions every year for asthma medications, primarily inhalers. So what can over 25 million American asthma sufferers thank for making their lives manageable? The guinea pigs and frogs which allowed scientists to gain the underlying understanding about how chemical nerve transmitters helped to control the muscles in the airways, as well as create reliever inhalers with a long duration of action.

This is just one example of a long list of medical achievements made possible by animal research which include insulin (dogs and rabbits), polio vaccine (monkeys), anaesthetics (rabbits), blood transfusion (monkeys, dogs), antibiotics to cure tuberculosis (guinea pigs), asthma treatment (frogs and guinea pigs), meningitis vaccine (mice), deep brain stimulation (monkeys), penicillin (mice).

Herceptin, originally developed in mice, has had a significant impact on the survival rates for breast cancers. As a mouse antibody (now humanised) it would not have come about without the use of animal research. Mice, far and away the most common mammal used in scientific research, have also been used in conjunction with stem cell research to create a treatment for macular degeneration (one of the leading causes of blindness). This research, pioneered in mice, has now been used successfully to treat humans.

In a country where we eat 9 billion chickens and 150 million cattle, pigs and sheep every year, 25 million (approx.) animals (96% is estimated to be mice, rats, birds and fish) seems a small price to pay for medical progress.

The Regulations

Animal research in the US is strictly regulated by federal and state laws. Federally funded research requires compliance with the Public Health Service (PHS) policy on the care and use of animals. Institutions and individuals must follow the US Department for Agriculture (USDA) regulations for research which are built on the Animal Welfare Act. Before it is approved, federally funded research undergoes two layers of scrutiny, at the study sections of the Center for Scientific Review and at Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUCs), composed of scientists, veterinarians and members of the community.  This body also self-reports any issues of noncompliance to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW). USDA also conducts regular, unannounced inspections of laboratories at least once per year.

PHS policy requires that all institutions base their animal care and use programs on the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals which covers all vertebrate species, including mice and rats (that comprise an estimated 96% of the animals used in research).  Euthanasia methods must follow the American Veterinary Medical Association Guidelines on Euthanasia.  Most universities which conduct research in the US also maintain a voluntary accreditation with the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC International), which assures that they strictly follow all regulatory requirements.

Adequate veterinary medical care is critical to support sound science and mandated by both PHS policy and the USDA Animal Welfare Regulations.  Regulations stipulate that the attending veterinarian is the individual with the sole legal responsibility for the health and welfare of animals. The attending veterinarian has the authority to make decisions to protect the welfare of animals without any consultation with any other institutional official nor the scientists involved in the studies.

The 3Rs

Aside from the legal instruments to protect animals in research, there is also a drive from researchers to improve laboratory animal welfare. At the heart of this is the 3Rs – Refinement, Replacement and Reduction of animal research.

Refinement means improving the methods used in research in order to minimize pain and distress for the animals. This includes improved training of those who work with animals (including researchers, veterinarians and animal care technicians), providing an enriched environment for animals to live in, designing better enclosures for animals, and furthering our understanding of the needs of animals so they can be met.

Replacement is aimed at using non-animal methods wherever possible. Sometimes breakthroughs are made and whole areas of animal research can be replaced. We are constantly driving forward in areas of in vitro and computer simulations to help replace experiments; however these methods are often used in conjunction with animal models – so the data from an animal experiment will help create a computer program which will reduce the number of animals needed in the future. Nonetheless, we should not rush to say these techniques can replace all animal research, and there are regularly new areas of biomedical research opening up which require the use of animal models.

Reduction finds ways of using fewer animals to gain the same amount of information. Breakthroughs in imaging techniques, such as MRI, allow scientists to track one animal through many stages of pathology, rather than requiring many animals to be culled at regular intervals. This is important when we consider the limited budgets available to scientists, and the high costs of doing animal experiments.

In contrast to animal rights claims that researchers reject animal welfare, the 3Rs are principles of good science, made by scientists, for scientists. Animal research, when conducted in a humane and scientific manner, remains an ethical and vital tool in fighting the scourges of disease around the world. Animals, we well as humans, benefit from research as new treatments for human and animal disease cannot be generated without using animal models.

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