Guest Post: What Animal Rights Groups Don’t Tell You About Non-Animal Models

And How Scientists Can Effectively Communicate About It

February 28th 2022

Guest Post By Naomi Charalambakis, PhD
Associate Director of Science Policy
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB)

Naomi Charalambakis, PhD

It’s no secret that animal rights groups make a concerted—and often aggressive—effort to misrepresent the truth about scientific research with animals. Social media has intensified these efforts, enabling organizations to routinely broadcast misleading claims in 280 characters or less. Over the last few years, one of the primary subjects of these social media campaigns involves the use of “human-relevant” scientific methods such as non-animal models that—according to animal research opponents—can readily replace animal studies.

The use of non-animal models (often known as “new approach methodologies” (NAMS) or microphysiological systems (MPS) in policy and legislative circles) is an emerging field of study that involves experimental techniques that do not require live animals. Examples include cell-based (in-vitro) tests, organs on a chip, organoids, and computer (in-silico) models. The truth is, scientists regularly use these techniques when feasible. For example, cultured cells and computer models are frequently used to expedite screening of new drugs. However, these approaches alone do not address critical aspects of animal or human physiology and behavior. In many cases, non-animal methods require further validation in animal models to ensure safety and efficacy.

But animal rights groups conveniently avoid mentioning these critical details to ensure their next viral tweet or Facebook post fits a predetermined narrative.

As frustrating as these social media campaigns can be, understanding the arguments that animal rights groups use to sway public opinion on this issue is important. Furthermore, by examining a few of their recurring talking points, the scientific community can formulate a strategy to counter incorrect statements and provide the necessary missing context for non-scientists and policymakers.

Animal Rights Claim: Non-Animal Models Can Replace Animal Studies

As the most common argument, it is important to unpack the reason why non-animal models cannot yet replace studies with animals. While these applications prove useful for certain contexts—toxicology, genomic analyses, hazard screening, etc.—experts agree that non-animal methods are currently too simplistic to tell a complete story. One way to think about it is doing a 500-piece puzzle with only three or four of the pieces; you just have a sliver of information from the entire picture. Therefore, non-animal models can only complement—not replace—ongoing work with animals.

Ironically, animal research opponents use a similar strategy when discussing the utility of non-animal models: they never share the complete story.  A classic case of data cherry-picking, animal rights groups fail to mention how non-animal methods lack the ability to generate whole-body responses, meaning they cannot speak to how the body’s organs, blood flow, metabolism, neural responses, and even behavior may react to a given drug or therapeutic. For example, organoids—self-organizing 3-D culture systems derived from human stem cells—are limited to the reproduction of only one organ or one type of tissue. Even when combining multiple organoids to try and simulate organ-to-organ communication, key aspects of physiology and pharmacokinetics remain fuzzy.

Needless to say, non-animal models are not yet ready to serve as a one-to-one replacement for animals. Their lack of standardization also requires these methods to be validated in models that are standardized: animal systems. Pointing out the low predictive power and scientific gaps inherent to non-animal models is essential when explaining to non-scientists why these techniques can only supplement animal studies at this time.

Animal Rights Claim: Scientists Are Unwilling to Change

Animal research opponents assert that scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and federal agencies funding research with animals are reluctant to use non-animal alternative models simply because they want to keep using methods they are most familiar with. This assertion is incorrect on multiple fronts. First, scientists are deeply committed to staying informed on their area of expertise to ensure studies are data driven and forward thinking. Part of this process involves keeping up to date on the models and methods that are most appropriate to answer certain research questions, formally known as a “literature search.” Only by providing written documentation of consideration for alternatives are researchers’ proposed studies able to move forward for potential approval, as required by the Animal Welfare Act.

While animal rights groups may lead non-scientists to believe that the literature search is merely a box-checking exercise, a rigorous review process is in place to ensure completeness. Multiple people, including scientists, veterinarians, and members of the public that participate on institutional review committees evaluate researchers’ literature search—as well as the overall study design—to verify that proposed studies are using animals only when non-animal models cannot provide the answers. By scrutinizing research projects from every angle, institutional review committees notify investigators if a more appropriate method exists.

The decision to use a canine or nonhuman primate model versus a mouse or zebrafish is not taken lightly. When communicating about animal research, it is important to emphasize not only the public health implications of this work but also the meticulous review process that occurs before research begins.

Animal Rights Claim: Scientists “Never” Use Non-animal Methods

Similar to the previous talking point, animal rights groups falsely declare that scientists never (or rarely) use non-animal methods. For the most part, the second half of this argument includes an intimation that it is because scientists “enjoy needlessly torturing” animals. These misleading claims perpetuate the false narrative that scientists do not use contemporary methodologies and, more alarmingly, that they do not care about the health and wellbeing of animals.

There are multiple examples across a spectrum of industries that demonstrate how scientists routinely use non-animal methods to glean preliminary information. For example, a computational modeling method known as Quantitative Structure-Activity Relationship (QSAR) enables researchers to examine the structural properties of chemicals alongside their biological properties. This high-throughput technique generates a considerable amount of toxicity information, helping researchers narrow down compounds for future testing. Organs on a chip—3-D circuits that attempt to mimic a human or animal organ—can help cancer researchers study the interaction between immune cells and cancer cells. However, as noted earlier, both of these methods—as with all non-animal model studies—only provide a small snapshot of the overall picture. More studies are needed to confirm and build upon the information derived from these models.

When talking about the value of animal research, it is important to acknowledge the areas where non-animal models are used to demonstrate that scientists use a variety of techniques to investigate research questions. But it is equally important to provide the appropriate context and details to clarify the limitations of non-animal models and ways that animals address their significant gaps.

A Call to Action

Communicating the value of animal research is difficult given the vast amount of (mis)information in the public domain. The information outlined in this article serves not only as a guide for scientists to convey the missing context animal rights neglect to share but also a call to action. Scientists and public health advocates should make every effort to highlight the continued need for animals and the role of this research in promoting human and animal health.

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