Animal testing is an incredibly controversial subject, with strong opinions on both sides. Whilst animal testing for cosmetics has now been banned in the EU, animals continue to be used in science, where they serve a vital role in biomedical research and drug development. Their importance is often overshadowed by the ethical issues surrounding the treatment of animals in research environments, and it’s important that people understand why and how they are used, as well as what measures are taken to ensure that they are treated correctly and replaced where possible.
The information provided here is to help people make informed opinions. These opinions will surely differ, and we very much doubt that there will ever be a time where everyone feels the same way about animal testing, but we think it’s a subject that’s certainly worth some thought!
Animal Testing in Cosmetics
Following many years of campaigning from animal rights activists and organisations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the RSPCA, any testing on animals for cosmetic purposes is now banned in the EU. This ban also makes it illegal for companies in the EU to sell products that have either been tested on animals in their entirety, or which contain ingredients that have been tested on animals. The second stage of the ban was completed in March 2013, which also banned EU companies selling cosmetics tested on animals outside the EU (up until this point companies could still sell products which contained ingredients tested on animals outside of the EU).
This kind of testing is largely regarded as unethical, as there is no direct benefit to human health, and the ban was largely welcome by the general public. Cosmetics are a consumer item, unlike medicines and vaccines, and so many do not think that the use of animals here us justified.
Medical research: in vivo experimentation
There are two broad types of experimentation used when testing the potential beneficial effects of new drugs or studying disease biology: in vitro and in vivo experiments.
In vitro experiments are performed using models like cell cultures: cells are grown in a petri dish and can be used to test the effects of drugs on cells directly. A simple example would be to grow cancer cells, treat them with a new anti-cancer drug and see if the cells die, or if their growth is inhibited. Showing growth inhibition in vitro could be the first step in finding a new drug to treat as yet incurable tumours.
In vivo experiments use animal models. An example of this could be to feed mice a very high fat diet and look at the effects of a drug on preventing weight gain and looking for any side effects or toxicities of the drug. Animal systems are much more representative of how drugs would actually work in the human body, as effects on other tissues and on physiological systems can be better evaluated using animals compared to cultures. Animals models are essential for developing new drugs and vaccines, as without them potential toxicities and benefits could never be tested to the point where it could be ethically justified to trial them on humans. Animal systems also allow scientists to take into account the role of physiological barriers like the blood-brain barrier which serves to protect the brain from harmful chemicals – this is helpful in a natural environment, but can hinder the efficacy of systemic therapies for brain cancers. Animals also have an immune system: vaccines rely on a functional immune system, which cannot simply be grown in a dish, and so it is difficult to test vaccines using in vitro experiments alone.
In the UK, the use of animals in research is strictly regulated by the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 which is enforced and monitored by the Home Office. Scientists using animals must complete training courses and acquire a personal license for working with animals. The project using the animals and the facility conducting the research must also apply for and obtain licenses for conducting in vivo experiments. These licenses are only granted upon review of license applications: the person must have completed the necessary training courses, the project must clearly outline the purpose of testing and how many animals are required, and the potential gain from conducting the experiments must be sufficient to warrant the use of animals.
In vivo experimentation is subject to continual review by the 3Rs: reduction, replacement, and refinement – these act as a framework within which animal testing can be conducted ethically.
Reduction calls for the number of animals used to be minimised, reducing animal suffering or sacrifice as much as possible. Replacement calls for use of other experimental systems (such as in vitro experiments like cell and tissue cultures) to be used instead of animals wherever possible. Refinement works to improve the life experience of the animal by making techniques less invasive to reduce lasting harm, improving their living conditions by enriching their environment, and providing anaesthesia and pain relief where necessary. Together, the 3 Rs work to ensure that animal suffering is both minimised and justified.
Some Complex Ethics
It would be very easy to say that animal testing is either right or wrong. In an ideal world, we would have perfect non-animal disease models which would accurately simulate the exact conditions of the human body, but this is simply not yet the case. Animals still provide the most representative models of the human body and will likely continue to do so for many years to come.
Activist groups, and even social stereotypes, may sometimes depict scientists as cold and unfeeling, but no one likes animal testing. No one goes to work and feels pleasure from performing experimental procedures on animals, and scientists working with animals are encouraged to think about the ethics of their practices.
Whilst it might be easy to appreciate ethical issues regarding animal welfare in these experiments, the issues fall on both sides. Without animals on which to test drugs, what is the alternative? If it is not ethical to give a potentially dangerous drug to an animal, how could it be ethical to test it directly on humans?
Needless to say, jumping straight from in vitro experiments to human trials is dangerous, as cell and tissue cultures are not always highly representative of a disease. To quote a scientist I once worked with “if you bath cancer cells in water they die, but water does not cure cancer. Cells in a dish do not have an immune system, they do not have a blood-brain barrier, and they do not have large organs made of different tissues working together. They are just cells in a dish.”
Whilst the scientific community largely accepts that testing on animals to benefit human health, there are many who do not hold that opinion. We hope that this article does not offend anyone with any particular belief set, and its contents do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of Antisense Science as an organisation. We hope this feature has been both interesting and stimulating to people holding a range of beliefs, and that it has provided useful information regarding the use of animals in research.
Thanks for Reading
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Festing, S., & Wilkinson, R. (2007). The ethics of animal research. Talking Point on the use of animals in scientific research EMBO reports, 8 (6), 526-530 DOI: 10.1038/sj.embor.7400993
Hajar, R. (2011). Animal testing and medicine Heart Views, 12 (1) DOI: 10.4103/1995-705X.81548