Why animal research is done humanely — Reason 1: Stressed Animals Yield Poor Data

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

14 responses to “Why animal research is done humanely — Reason 1: Stressed Animals Yield Poor Data

  1. Scientists who believe testing on animals is justified can never have their defence for it to be factually correct because it cannot be proven that animaltesting will guarantee regarding safety and efficacy for us humans to bennefit from. New medicine can sometimes mean a personal career boost and when criticized for using animals in science to be NON ethical and therefor WRONG, Tom ultimately proceeds to express accusations like severe anthropomorphist etc. It’s pathetic really. It always shows the same, namely that animal using scientists themselves have a void in their empathy where attention should be paid to spend…. Say all you want, but as long as you hurt and physically or psychologically damage or kill our fellow sentient beings, you cannot be taken seriously in your unmeritorious crusade for the right to produce medicine at any price, unless ….you still live in the disenfranchised middle ages? Shame

    • No method guarantees safety, but by your argument we should remove seat belts from cars because people still die wearing them. The fact is that there have been almost no deaths in Stage I clinical trials, and that is largely thanks to animal safety tests.

      Furthermore, I am not a researcher, I don’t do anything to animals. Those who do, do important work to try and alleviate the terrible suffering that exists in humans and animals from disease. We must care for animals but anthropomorphism does not help anyone – to ascribe human feelings to animals simply causes people to misunderstand how we should treat animals.

      • Often one cannot believe his eyes when reading posts on this blog.
        A comparison with seat belts – when we are talking about the suffering of animals.
        And ultimately presenting ‘anthropomorphism’ as an excuse for imprisoning, torturing and killing living beings. Not as an exception – but as a rule. As a way of life.
        Degrading compassion as no more than ‘anthropomorphism’.
        Disgustingly cheap.

        In a way I am glad to have discovered this blog. Here some people show openly their brutal character. Usually they avoid publicity, preferring to express their scornful ideas among each other.
        In fact these people are what part of mankind really is. Pseudo civilized.

        Everybody today is shocked by the situation in Syria. That is because it is broadcasted and showed on television. But Syria should not surprise us at all.
        One should see only what is done to animals in laboratories. Scales would fall from the eyes.

      • You share a dream with me: Humans ánd animals should suffer less from diseases rather to be cured from it from now on.
        At the same time you don’t hesitate to promote the use of labanimals who suffer sick to death due to experiments, and you don’t seem to mind making humans being sick to the stomach since talking to you.

        I guess there is nothing else to expect from someone who compares seat belts next to the use of sentient living beings in research. Giving yóu Tom, the last word on this page, is the only thing left to do since there is no use talking to a brick wall. Goodday Sir!

  2. @Tom: The picture of the caged macaque above presenting his leg for blood sampling is one of the most humiliating I’ve longtime seen.

    Expression of deep rooted contempt for – even – primates.

    Not noticed by Tom who proudly presents this as ‘humane’.

    How low people can fall.

  3. I am sorry dear Tom, but you make me laugh: “After it has been shown safe in animals for human trials, you want to ensure the drug does not have any very dangerous side effects.”

    I am sure you know that again and again medicines, after have been tested, in animals, in people, had nevertheless extreme dangerous side effects. So severe that they even had to be withdrawn by the producer!
    I wonder how volunteers luckily could escape these calamities.

    The test in healthy people is done only because one does not even trust the value of animal testing!

    Animal testing is a tale told by an idiot.

    Please also read Ben Goldacre.

    • Allow me to clarify – the animal tests exist to show a drug is safe enough to move onto human clinical trials. Given the lack of Stage I clinical trial deaths, this would appear to be fairly effective.

      Now in terms of drugs getting to market (and dangerous ones occasionally do), they do so on the basis of human clinical trial results. So those dangerous drugs were passed safe in test tubes, animals and humans – it is simply a rare side effect (Vioxx has a one in 400 fatal effect, but very hard to show from the relatively small scale of clinical trials). How would removing the animal test stage make this process any safer?

  4. I am sorry for you but I happened to speak last Wednesday to a lady (animal) activist who participates voluntarily in testing. Of course she is not the only one.
    The whole thing is the more ridiculous when you consider the fact that testing medecine for sick people is firstly done on sound (healthy) volunteers!
    At minimal doses though.
    Furthermore, we are no mice nor rats. Even mice and rats differ greatly biologically !
    Testing on these animals can never exclude all risks. Remember the catastrophe with TGN1412, (London, 2006)
    Why not straight forward testing on sick (ill) people whom the medicine is meant for?

    Isn’t it a shame that you recognize that there still is “a wide margin for refinement”?! Even “w i d e ” !
    Since Russell & Burch 1959!

    Another shame you mention yourself is that “most studies on human subjects are conducted in poor countries”.

    I am sorry to say but the business you are employed in is a very very dirty one. Low ethical standards – if there are such standards at all.

    Finally you are wrong in saying that animal activists “are usually keen on benefiting from all medical advances brought about by animal research.”
    Firstly we are not keen in taking any poisonous medicine at all (side effects!),
    secondly we have no choice.
    As a vegetarian I have a the choice not to eat fish or meat. As a patient I am forced to accept your so called medecine.

    People should end abusing animals for human needs. Governments should invest money in new techniques, machines, devices. Both human health care and human civilisation would benefit from it. Plus our fellow non human beings, the animals.

    • Why is it ridiculous to test new drugs on healthy people. After it has been shown safe in animals for human trials, you want to ensure the drug does not have any very dangerous side effects. These early tests are about safety, not efficacy, so using healthy volunteers (usually men) is important.

      The doses are initially smaller, but not tiny (unless you are thinking about microdosing which won’t tell you about safety). TGN1412 is the only major disaster in the last three decades, and I cannot think of a single death in Stage I clinical trials during that period – this is because animal safety tests ensure dangerous drugs don’t go to Stage I. Now TGN1412 should never have passed animal tests (it was poorly understood as a drug – and why they gave it to all 6 patients at once was an insanity), but consider how many TGN1412 disasters there would be if we removed the layer of protection offered by animal research.

  5. That being said, it is untrue that all research is conducted humanely. I know so because I’m a laboratory animal welfare scientist. There is still a wide margin for refinement, and I’m sure that at least in Europe things are going to improve a great deal with the new 2010/63/EU Directive on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes.

  6. 1 – Every therapy/vaccine/etc. is of course tested on humans, of course.

    2 – Try asking someone to voluntarily participate in a trial of drug that has not been tested on other animal species first.

    3 – There are very complex ethical issues surrounding the use of humans in biomedical research. Have you ever questioned why most studies on human subjects are conducted in poor countries? Often they are a) not aware of the risks b) not given enough information and/or c) give consent to things they wouldn’t otherwise give if they were not facing financial difficulties. It’s not as linear as you think. I know several animal activists. I talk to them, I participate in debates with them and, guess what? None of them are volunteers in clinical trials. I, on the other hand, have frequently given blood for colleagues in my faculty to conduct research on. It’s no big deal, of course, but it’s far more than any animal activist is willing to do (although they are usually keen on benefiting from all medical advances bought about by animal research)

  7. Animal testing is uncivilised.
    It’s time consuming, costly and unreliable.
    Thereby: testing is always done on people (volunteers) anyway.
    Research should replace animal testing. Health care would benefit from it.