The Necessary Evil of Animal Experimentation

Imagine nurturing and working with the cutest little lab mouse for your entire school semester and then having to murder it in cold blood.

In the lab, this scenario is all too common — in fact, animal models are one of the hallmarks of science.

The other day, I was telling a co-worker about this particular ethical dilemma. She looked at me, appalled. "Why wouldn't you just test on human volunteers that consent?" she asked. "These poor animals don't have a say in your experiments."

Animal experimentation has impacted our everyday life

But what this perspective fails to consider is the impact of animal experimentation on everyday life. Animal experimentation has been – and still is – integral to understanding diseases as well as evaluating the safety of modern medicine. Human health has benefitted tremendously from medications and vaccines that have either directly or indirectly used animals, such as insulin, Crestor (a high cholesterol drug) and the polio vaccine.

Frederick Banting (right) and Charles Best (left) awarded Nobel prize for the discovery of insulin. These scientists tested insulin on dogs in the 20th century. (Courtesy of Pinterest)

Frederick Banting (right) and Charles Best (left) awarded Nobel prize for the discovery of insulin. These scientists tested insulin on dogs in the 20th century. (Courtesy of Pinterest)

Imagine a world where people frequently contracted polio or died from diabetes in the initial stages of their diagnosis. Horrifying, right?  We don’t see this happen as often anymore because of the medical advances we have made from animal testing. Of course, we may have had our own set of dubious ethical standards back then, but scientists still use animal models today for a variety of research purposes.

Outspoken anti-animal experimentation advocates often invoke images of heartless scientists slaughtering animals left and right — but in reality, that’s hardly ever the case. In fact, Canada has strict guidelines for animal experimentation that require scientists to restrict the use of animals; refine experiments to minimize distress; and replace tests with alternative techniques. But even though we have these principles set in place, there’s no way that animal experimentation can be eliminated entirely — at least for now.

How exactly are animals used in science?

Not only are animal models relatively inexpensive; but because they reproduce quickly and have shorter life spans, scientists can make observations more quickly and efficiently than if they were to do so without models. Researchers can obtain results more quickly — any anyone who's worked in a lab can tell you how painfully slow the wait time can be for lab research.

If you're racing against the clock to develop a vaccine (i.e. Ebola), you're not going to choose the slower process of human trials, before other trials, because you risk obtaining ambiguous results (due to incomplete understanding of the pathology) and you risk harming human health (by spreading the disease or producing a harmful mutation).

Even cell cultures and cell tissues, which are virtually used for everything – from studying cell physiology to testing antibiotics – require fetal bovine serum: cell nutrients produced from the blood of slaughtered cattle. You're not going to poke into someone's tissue, just to study their physiology. The in vitro environment allows you plenty more flexibility what with the visualization and manipulation of cell tissues and cultures.

On top of that, sometimes your research requires you to use environments that simulate the human condition. That's where mice come into play, because mice and humans have many genetic and physiological similarities.

Using the mouse model in ALS research (Courtesy of Robert Packer Centre at John Hopkins)

Using the mouse model in ALS research (Courtesy of Robert Packer Centre at John Hopkins)

What do critics say?

Recently, finance professor Lisa Kramer wrote an emotional op-ed for the Globe and Mail pleading for professionals to stop animal testing. Kramer and other critics may argue that observations in animals seldom translate directly to humans – and sometimes, this sentiment rings true. However, if you're looking at how a non-pregnancy specific drug affects pregnancy, for example, it would take nine months to observe the effects compared to a much shorter gestation time for mice, thus rendering scientific breakthroughs few and far between.

So why use animals in science?

Although drug testers do move on to human trials eventually, they first must do years of research and testing to understand the drug's mechanism of action and determine its safety.

If we skipped animal trials, we would have a lot more difficulty determining safety and obtaining volunteers for these experiments because humans seldom want to participate in risky studies unless there’s a hefty financial gain. More and more confounding variables would pop up as well: if someone develops a disease after being the test subject for a certain drug, it will be near impossible to tell whether that disease was as a result of natural causes or because of the drug. Then, we’d have to study pathology using more human models — which would result in a chain reaction of having to cause more problems and then utilizing more human models to discover the root of said problems.

While many strides have been made in our understanding of modern medicine, we still don't fully understand a myriad of diseases that affect millions of people — like cancer, mental illness and HIV — and animal models may help us understand them. It's unfortunate that our beloved Ratatouille relatives have to die in the name of science, but for what it's worth, it's a pretty valiant sacrifice.