When we are run down or stressed we often find ourselves more prone to getting coughs and colds. Stress changes us physiologically; it puts pressure on our autonomic nervous system, changing how drugs react inside of us. The same is true of animals.
Writing in the Huffington Post, Aysha Akhtar notes that when you catch a monkey with a net, it can cause much stress to the animal. She is right, and she uses this line of thinking to argue that animal research cannot produce useful results; at this point she is wrong.
What Akhtar has done is explain why the 3Rs exist. Developed by Burch and Russell in 19591, these principles of humane research are Refinement, Reduction and Replacement of animal research. The key “R” here is Refinement – improving the conditions of animals involved in research. This can take many forms including better diets, improved animal housing, and better training for both technicians and animals.
This training of animals is vitally important. Akhtar links to a video of monkeys being caught using a pole-and-collar technique. The pole-and-collar technique is used for a subset of studies and much time dedicated to habituating and training primates to participate in this task calmly and without stress. For example, this technique is used for those monkeys participating in behavioural and cognitive tasks that make use of neural recording. For tasks that do not require animals to remain in one place, primates can be trained (using treats) to voluntarily offer an arm or leg for injection (below) or blood sampling. We have written about this previously, with a video featuring this training with chimpanzees in the U.S. All of this contributes to a less stressed animal that provides more accurate and reproducible data.
Akhtar makes some misleading statements about animal research and stress. For example, in a study cited by Akhtar, it is noted that mice in smaller cages developed heart defects. What she does not note from the paper is that the larger cages were enriched with a wheel, shelf and tunnel which would promote healthy living associated with fewer heart problems. Indeed the paper shows how better results can be attained from improving the environmental enrichment of animal housing.
Akhtar also notes that rats can have intestinal inflammation in labs. She does not note the article says this is if they are left in “small, empty cages, with bedding if they are lucky”. Such conditions are becoming increasingly uncommon, with socially housed rodents kept in larger plastic cages with bedding and enrichment designed to meet their needs.
While removing an animal from a cage can cause stress, it needn’t – and perhaps Akhtar would do more good propagating good practise, as groups like the RSPCA and NC3Rs do, than trying to find new ways to attack animal research.
Claims that animals are often denied food, water and pain relief is again misleading. Food and water are sometimes denied prior to procedures, but this is in much the same way a human might be told not to eat or drink anything prior to an operation.
The fact is that Ahkthar is part of a tiny minority of scientists who try to argue animal research does not produce useful results. Perhaps, she should note The Lancet which wrote that
The use of animals in medical research and safety testing is a vital part of the quest to improve human health. It always has been and probably always will be, despite the alternatives available. Indeed, in this era of genomics and proteomics, more rather than fewer animals will be needed. Without animal testing, there will be no new drugs for new or hard-to-treat diseases.2.
Given that the last year has shown advances through animal research which include the first ever progeria treatment and a new diabetes treatment, Lixisenatide, it certainly seems incorrect to suggest that such methods are “fundamentally flawed”.
Speaking of Research
1Russell, WMS and Burch, RL. The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique. Methuen & Co Ltd.: London. 1959.
2 The Lancet, Volume 364, Issue 9437, Pages 815 – 816, 4 September 2004