This week is World Week for Animals in Laboratories when we commemorate the suffering of millions of animals in laboratories around the world and raise awareness of better, human-relevant research methods that do not involve inflicting pain on animals.
Animal research is still a mostly secret industry. Although research institutions are required to collect data about animal research, this information is not made publicly available in full. Here in Australia, Humane Research Australia (HRA) collects available data and makes them available on its website. The latest available statistics indicate that during 2015 approximately 9.9 million animals were used in Australia (although this includes studies that involve observation only). HRA also publishes case studies of horrific procedures that are being carried out on animals in this country.
Over the last decades, increasingly evidence has come to light showing the pitfalls of animal research. For example, scientist have been able to cure different types of cancer in mice, but a cure in humans is still elusive.
The development of penicillin was delayed because the researcher Dr. Alexander Fleming thought it was ineffective in a rabbit model of systemic infection. In fact, Fleming later stated “How fortunate we didn’t have these animal tests in the 1940s, for penicillin would probably never have been granted a license, and possibly the whole field of antibiotics might never have been realised. (Kramer & Greek 2018)
While animals have been used in experiments for decades, animal models have not been validated; they have not been tested to see whether they are fit for purpose. And yet, most regulatory testing still requires that new drugs and treatments be tested on animals before they are evaluated for safety and efficacy in clinical trials with humans. On the other hand, any new testing method that does not involve animals has to go through a rigorous validation process.
The vast resources dedicated to animal experimentation have an opportunity cost for humans: new drugs that fail in animals but would benefit humans do not become available. We know that one in ten new drugs that are safe and effective in animals fail in humans. We do not know how many new drugs that would be safe and effective in humans never made it to drug trials in humans. And we do not know how many patients have suffered or died prematurely due to this opportunity cost.
Even for two individuals within the same species, small differences in DNA can mean the difference between life and death. A tiny difference of one amino acid within the human chromosome is all that separates a patient with life‐threatening sickle cell anemia from those of us who do not suffer from that condition. Dramatic differences can exist across species even without changes in amino acid sequences. Genes are regulated—turned on and off—by other genes. For example, mice and humans share the gene that allows mice to grow a tail. The reasons humans do not normally grow a tail during development is that the gene is never turned on (i.e., expressed). Differences in gene regulation and expression vary within and between species and account for differences in response to drugs and disease. (Kramer & Greek 2018)
Even supporters of the practice point to numerous flaws in animal research. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is the major funder of biomedical research in Australia. In 2017, it published a report with the title Best practice methodology in the use of animals for scientific purposes. This report includes a long list of flaws in animal research: flaws in the quality of experimental design, flaws in the quality of experimental statistics, flaws in the quality of techniques and procedures, and flaws in reporting (pp. 10-13).
Animal experimentation is cruel, ineffective and a waste of our taxes. It supports an industry that is outdated and needs to change. This change has started, but it is very slow. I have written about this in previous posts, for example here. Unfortunately, Australia is not at the forefront of innovation.
So what can we do to get a move on the end of animal experimentation and replace the use of animals with advanced science? Some ideas: Share your views on outdated animal research with friends and family, politicians and on social media. Make a donation to a charity that works towards ending animal experimentation. Organise a fund-raising event. Don’t buy cosmetics and household products that have been tested on animals.
Thoughts and prayers on World Day for Laboratory Animals on 24 April and during the week are not enough.