On Saturday hundreds gathered in Red Square to voice their opposition to scientific research. At its core, this is the true message of the animal rights movement, which believes that research should never rely on animal models. The march on UW was about stopping science altogether. Is this really the best move for society?

Debates about animal models in research are emotional, contentious, and unfortunately, often fraught with demonstrably false “facts.” This is a serious problem. It is impossible to have a thoughtful conversation about the role of science and medical research in society if a position is based on misinformation and inaccurate beliefs.

Two of the most frequently repeated claims of the animal rights movement are that animal models are not actually useful in science and that there are more effective, humane ways to engage in research. While appealing, both statements are wrong. 

The history of science provides countless examples of the utility of animal research. For example, until as recently as 1940 and the development of the “antibiotic age”, a knee scrape, if it became infected, could be a death sentence. 

In 1928 Alexander Fleming discovered that when grown in proximity to one another, the mold Penicillim notatum killed the colonies of the often-fatal bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. Unfortunately, Fleming’s test-tube studies failed to show the antimicrobial properties he expected from Penicillin. These results, and the difficulty of isolating Penicillin, ultimately led Fleming to believe that it might only be useful as a topical antiseptic.

Although Fleming’s work showed some promise, Penicillin was not a high priority for antimicrobial researchers. In addition to being very difficult to isolate, its therapeutic properties seemed to be inactivated in blood — making it a poor candidate for treating systemic infections. But by 1940 enough Penicillin was isolated for testing. In a landmark study Ernst Chain and Howard Florey infected eight mice with a deadly dose of Streptococcus pyogenes. One hour later, four of the mice were injected with Penicillin. These mice survived the infection and changed modern medicine forever.

The amount of Penicillin required to treat a human infection is 3,000 times greater than for a mouse. If animal models were unavailable to Chain and Florey, they would have had to undergo the perfectly unreasonable task of isolating huge quantities of a substance that, as far as they could understand, had no therapeutic value. Simply put, without animal models Penicillin would not have been developed.

Fortunately, the story of Penicillin is not unique. There are literally thousands of medical interventions, drugs, and procedures whose discovery and development required the use of research animals. Modern therapies that require animal models include: vaccines, organ transplants, cancer treatments, HIV/AIDS drug development, and thousands more. The claim that animal models are “bad science” and fail to provide important insights into biological understanding and therapeutic development is dishonest and wrong.

The second position of the animal rights movement is that there are alternatives that are simultaneously more effective and humane. The three most often suggested alternatives are human cell cultures, computer models, and experimentation on human subjects.

Tissue and cell culture experiments are extremely powerful research techniques. Their use provides important insights into the function of individual cells and helps identify potential targets for future therapeutics. However, these studies, by their very nature, can only reveal a fraction of the whole picture. For example, a few cells could never describe the complexity of an entire organ — much less the entire organism. Though important for reducing the number of animals used, these techniques could never replace them.

Computational techniques are another tremendously valuable tool. With mathematical models and data analysis, computers allow researchers to better understand the systems they study. But again, computation is a supplement to animal research, not a replacement. Every computer model has to be validated against data collected from animal research. There is no other way to ensure that a modeling program is accurate.

Furthermore, animal rights activists overestimate the power of computer models. In 2007 researchers were able to simulate a virtual brain of 8,000,000 neurons, roughly the complexity of half a mouse brain. While impressive, this is less than 1/10,000th the number of neurons in a human brain and likely much less complex. The simulation ran on the fastest supercomputer and could only do so for 10 seconds at 1/10th the speed of a real brain. In all, this program required the world’s most powerful supercomputer to model one second of one half a mouse brain. How could a desktop PC possibly predict the behavior of the human brain?

The most troubling alternative proposed by animal rights activists is the use of human volunteers for basic science. In practice, such policies would effectively halt biomedical research. For one, the cost of recruiting and paying human subjects would bankrupt already sparse science funding within months. This of course, assumes that enough people volunteer to participate. Considering that clinical researchers already have difficulty in recruiting people for fairly benign studies, it is highly improbable that eight people would volunteer to receive a deadly dose of Streptococcus pyogenes, for example.

Beyond the practical limitations of using only human subjects, there are serious questions about the morality of doing so. Which population is likely to accept payment for becoming test subjects: the socioeconomically disadvantaged or the wealthy? The argument that humans ought to replace research animals raises real concerns about the exploitation of disadvantaged communities.

It was not long ago that I was sympathetic to some of the positions of the animal rights activists. But, as I learned the science behind biomedical therapeutics, it became clear that because animal models save millions and millions of lives, they are necessary. A powerful research program, which includes the use of animal models, is the responsibility of an ethical society. 


Benjamin Cordy, UW neurobiology student

(5) comments

The part of this debate I understand best is the emotional side of it that the writer mentions. Seeing something suffer from a deathly dose of anything can make you cringe. Thanks for bringing up a sometimes overlooked piece of the emotional debate- human illness and suffering. Ultimately, animal research is meant to minimize this. While I agree that animal research should be avoided when something like a modeling program will suffice, in order to create and improve those programs and, more importantly, to improve the treatment of malignant illnesses, animal research is necessary.

When considering the countless scientific advances that have been made as a direct result of experimenting on animals, I find it to be a necessary procedure. I also believe strict protocol should be followed to minimize pain and suffering on the part of the animals used. I would guess there is quite a bit of regulation related to that issue but that may be an issue worth fighting for. That being said, I personally support a new facility that will conduct groundbreaking research that could improve the lives of all of us.

Your opening statement that the No New Animal Lab march at the UW this last Saturday was about "stopping science altogether" is offensive and completely disingenuous. As someone who opposes the building of this new expanded lab and marched on Saturday, I can tell you that we absolutely support research, but in an ethical manner. Other top universities in the United States are moving away from experimenting on animals and investing in more modern research methods. The UW should do the same.

The point being made there is that although some may find it unfortunate, much research, especially biomedical/life science research, is not yet at the point where there are fruitful alternatives to animal models, so taking away animal research will halt the science that relies on it.

I'm not sure if you had the chance to finish the article, but a bit further down is a more complete justification as to why animal models are still necessary and why science (in its current state) couldn't persist without it. I strongly suggest thinking about those reasons and putting the consequences of halted animal research under heavy scrutiny before lobbying against it.

SS - Thanks for your comment.

The central point of your comment (and the debate about animal models in general) is how to define "ethical manner" in regards to research. This is important for two reasons:

First, most people ignore the strict and widespread protocols that already ensure that research is conducted as ethically as possible (look up the three R's principle and the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee).

Second, the animal right's protesters define ANY use of animals as unethical (per their website and speeches during the protest). So, given the opportunity, the protesters would prohibit research animals. This would effectively stop biomedical research (for the reasons I address in the above article).

If you don't mind elaborating a bit, what are these "more modern research methods" that would eliminate the need for animal models?

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