One of the most controversial aspects of biomedical research is the use of animals to benefit humans. Scientists use animals to test new treatments for human diseases and to understand human biology. Many groups have protested the use of animals for research. The most well-known and influential of these groups has been People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). These groups have successfully raised concerns about using animals for research, and they have brought about changes such as closing down some research labs and decreasing the number of airlines that will transport animals destined for research. People perceive the benefits and detriments of these actions differently depending on whether they support or condemn animal use in research.
I am not writing this article from an entirely unbiased position because I work with animals to understand basic human biology and to discover treatments for human diseases. Since many articles about the negative aspects of animal research have been published, I intend to provide a more positive perspective on animal research from a scientist’s point of view.
The goal of using animals for research is to save human lives and improve human health. Scientists do not use animals because it is fun, and they do not use animals when there are better alternatives (e.g. using humans, cell culture, or computer models). Scientists use animals for research because animal research can provide information to eliminate human diseases, improve health, and ultimately save human lives. Animal research has saved millions of human lives and has improved the health of billions more. Animals have played an important role in discovering cures for deadly diseases such as polio, smallpox, and hepatitis C. Animal research has also discovered treatments for Type 1 diabetes, malaria, cystic fibrosis, and thousands of other diseases.
Animal research improves animal health and finds cures for animal diseases. Animals contract many of the same diseases as humans do, such as heart failure and diabetes. Research in animals has saved the lives of millions of pets by providing vaccines, pacemakers, artificial joints, and chemotherapy for pets. Animal research has also improved our understanding of endangered species so that we can prevent their extinction.
Research in humans has limitations that can be overcome by using animals. Scientists and animal activists may ask why we cannot conduct all research in humans so that we can avoid the ethical dilemma of animal research. First, many studies are conducted in humans (over 100,000 people participate in clinical trials every year, and this number does not include the thousands more people involved studies that are not considered clinical trials). However, many studies are not feasible to perform in humans. For example, studies involving diets or food components require subjects to be very compliant (follow the diet exactly) so that scientists can definitively answer their research questions (such as whether a vitamin or mineral is necessary for health). However, people are not usually very compliant with their diets, leading to confusing data and sometimes wrong answers to research questions. In animal studies, diets can be carefully controlled, which ensures that the data obtained is accurate. This allows scientists to answer very specific research questions about diet effects. Using animals for research also optimizes research funds by ensuring that research does not need to be repeated due to non-compliant human research subjects. Furthermore, research in humans is substantially more expensive than animal research, due to compensation for the research subjects and extra costs of research monitoring. Finally, humans have much longer lifespans than most animals, meaning that a single study could require 1-50X longer to complete in humans than in animals. This both raises research costs and increases the time required to make scientific discoveries.
Scientists prioritize animal health and minimize animal pain. When alternative methods of study, such as those in humans, are not an option, scientists use animals. Scientists undergo substantial training so that they know how to conduct research with animals in an ethical manner. Furthermore, before any animal research takes place, scientists must get approval for their planned study from the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). This committee includes at least one veterinarian, who ensures that the animals in the study are healthy and well. The committee also includes at least one person from the community who is not associated with the research institution. This ensures that animals used in experiments receive the maximum amount of care without interfering with the experiment. Every scientist must consider 3 words before they start working with animals: Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement. First, can the scientist replace animals with some other model? (For example, cells isolated from humans or animals or computer models). Second, can the scientist reduce the number of animals so that as few as possible are harmed? And third, can the scientist refine their experiments so that animals suffer as little as possible? All three questions must be addressed before research can begin.
While scientists may enjoy working with animals, they do not like causing pain for animals. Researchers ensure that the animals in their care are healthy and well for the research study. Many scientists are animal activists and whole-heartedly care for the animals they work with.
Science has a small impact on animals in comparison to animals harmed by other factors. Scientists in the United States used 12-27 million animals in 2010. Although this sounds like a large
number, 99% of these animals are rats, mice, birds, or fish. People in the U.S. consume more than 340 chickens for every 1 animal that is studied in a research facility. Furthermore, for every animal involved in research, another 14 animals are killed on roads.
Scientists and those who benefit from the science appreciate what animal research has accomplished. Scientists appreciate all that animals have done to benefit scientific advances and human health. A town in Russia raised enough money to erect a statue to pay tribute to all of the sacrifices that animals, namely the laboratory mouse, have paid to save human lives (see picture). This statue reflects the attitudes that scientists have for their laboratory animals, and it thanks them for what they have done to save millions of human lives.
Peer-reviewed by Caitlyn Molloy and Elise Hickman.
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