Tag Archives: animal testing

Research Roundup: March for Science, promising headway in stem cell treatments, new treatment for cystic fibrosis and more!

Welcome to this week’s Research Roundup. These Friday posts aim to inform our readers about the many stories that relate to animal research each week. Do you have an animal research story we should include in next week’s Research Roundup? You can send it to us via our Facebook page or through the contact form on the website.

  • On Saturday April 22nd, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to march in defense of science in cities around the world, including Washington DC, London, Paris. Toronto, Berlin and more. Speaking of Research has a history of holding rallies in defense of science, and we wish those who are attending events on Saturday the very best of luck. With science funding in many countries under threat, it is important that we all stand up and be counted.

SR-March

 “The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.”
https://www.marchforscience.com/
#MarchforScience

  • Stem cell treatment and transplant shows vision and promise. Using induced pluripotent stem cells, a Japanese man is the first human to receive reprogrammed stem cells from another human being as a means of treating macular degeneration — a form of blindness that affects 1% of all humans over the age of 50. Before this procedure made its way to humans, safety and efficacy trials in mice (.e.g., 1,2,3) and non-human primates were undertaken (e.g., 1,2,3) — although it is worth emphasizing that some have raised concerns about the stringency of Japanese preclinical regulatory process. Takahashi, the lead scientist behind this trial, stated that the surgery has gone well, but that success cannot be declared without further monitoring the fate of the transplanted cells.

    SR-StemCells

    Somatic stem cells exist naturally in the body. They are important for growth, healing, and replacing cells that are lost daily through wear and tear.  Source: University of Utah

  • A new study finds that exposure to low doses of antibiotics early in life can have long term consequences on behaviour in mice. Adding to a growing body of literature, this study found that low but clinically relevant doses of penicillin administered prenatally in mice can lead to lasting effects in both sexes on gut microbiota, immune functioning, and alters anxiety-like, social and aggressive behaviour. Concurrent supplementation with Lactobacillus rhamnosus JB-1 via drinking water prevented some of these alterations — potentially via alterations to the vagus nerve. Subsequent replication and extension of these findings needs to be undertaken, particularly in regards to the length of exposure and when exposure occurs (early or later in gestation or even postnatally). The authors of this study concluded that “these results warrant further studies on the potential role of early-life antibiotic use in the development of neuropsychiatric disorders, and the possible attenuation of these by beneficial bacteria.” This study was published in Nature Communications.
    SR-miceantibiotics
  • Humane endpoints for zebrafish released on the Humane Endpoint website at Utrecht University in English, Dutch and German. “A humane endpoint is the earliest indicator in an animal experiment of pain or distress in the animal. Researchers can use these indicators to avoid or limit pain and distress in laboratory animals.” Zebrafish are a commonly used as laboratory species and, for example, in the Netherlands, an average of 5000 experiments are performed on zebrafish each year. Consistent with the 3Rs, these guidelines contribute the refinement aspect of the 3Rs “since it teaches scientists, animal technicians and animal caretakers how to prevent unnecessary pain and distress in laboratory animals.” Access to this website is free and for further details on who can and how to access all content can be found here.

    Zebrafish_Sanger

    Zebrafish: Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

  • Vaccination of prairie dogs planned in an effort to save the black footed ferret. Black footed ferrets are members of the weasel family and were brought to the brink of extinction in the 1960s due to habitat destruction. By the 1980s it was estimated that only 18 remained. Due to conservation efforts, there are now approximately 300 of these ferrets in the wild and a further 300 in captive breeding facilities. Approximately 90% of the diet of these ferrets are comprised of prairie dogs. However, because of the Sylvatic plague, prairie dogs living in the habitats of the black footed ferret are now in danger of being decimated and spreading this disease to the ferrets that eat them. To combat this problem, wildlife conservationists such as the USGS National Wildlife Center are planning to a vaccination campaign in specific habitats of the black footed ferret. This is a great example of the reach of biomedical research with vaccinations developed in animals being used to save other animals.
  • Potential new treatment for cystic fibrosis found. Cystic fibrosis is a progressive genetic disease that leads to persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe. In particular, it affects the Cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene. In addition, it can prevent the pancreas from releasing digestive enzymes due to the buildup of mucus. It affects approximately 70,000 people worldwide. These researchers investigated whether thymosin alpha 1 (Ta1) — a naturally occurring protein with an excellent safety profile in the clinic — can rectify some of the multiple tissue defects associated with cystic fibrosis. Using inbred mice, they found that this protein leads to reduced inflammation and increased CFTR maturation, stability, and activity — indicating that Ta1 has a strong potential to be a single-molecule therapeutic agent to treat and stop the progression of cystic fibrosis. This study was published in Nature Medicine.
SR-CF

Image courtesy of National Library of Medicne

Research Roundup: Death of a pioneer, 2017 Brain Prize, and unsubstantiated claims by PETA

Welcome to the first in a series of weekly Research Roundups. These aim to inform our readers about the many stories that relate to animal research each week.

Do you have an animal research story we should include in next week’s roundup? You can send it to us via our Facebook page or through the contact form on the website.

  • Thomas Starzl the father of organ transplantation has died. Beginning with his work on liver transplantation in dogs in the 1950s, and subsequent refinement of the procedure using livers from pigs and primates, today “more than half of the liver-transplant patients who underwent surgery in 1998 were alive ten years later, and in 2009, almost 50,000 Americans carried a transplanted liver” (Lasker Foundation).” Read more about this here and here.

The father of organ transplantation, Thomas Starzl.

  • 2017 Brain Prize announced – Peter Dayan, Ray Dolan and Wolfram Schultz. Collectively, their work examines the ability of humans and animals to link rewards to events and actions. This research, involving non-human primates, provides valuable insights into motivation to perform both positive and negative behaviour, how those behaviours regulate emotions such as happiness and how dysregulation may affect addictive/compulsive behaviours such as gambling. Read more about this here.

  • An unannounced four-day inspection of the animal research facilities at the University of Pittsburgh found no wrongdoing. The inspection was triggered by unspecified allegations by the animal rights group PETA, though USDA officials could not find evidence corroborating the claims by PETA. This is not the first time we have noted that animal rights groups claims against labs which cannot be substantiated by inspectors. More here.
  • Tasmanian devil cancer is a major threat Tasmanian devils with more than 80% of the population being wiped out since it emerged 20 years ago. Fighting cancer with cancer, and in a culmination of 6 years of research, scientists have managed to achieve a 60% survival rate (3 out of 5). The application of animal research takes all forms, and this is a good example of techniques being developed in the lab on nonhuman animals being used to save other nonhuman animals. More here and here.

Tasmanian devils under threat

  • Ethical deliberation of the killing of wild animals humanely for conservation is considered here. The killing of animals by humans warrants moral and ethical consideration. Animal research can be used to inform such decisions so that they are grounded in sound scientific evidence.
  • In a concerning move, advisors to President Trump suggested removing regulations requiring pharmaceutical companies to perform pre-clinical trials which ensure human safety before bringing them to the market. You can read more about the value of animal research in pre-clinical trials here.
  • The NC3Rs has awarded the 2016 3Rs prize to Daniel Weary who investigated possible refinements to the legislative requirements for rats housed in the laboratory for research. Read more here and here. This prize and this research highlights governing bodies’ and researchers’ dedication to the health and well-being of the animals under their care. Well done, Daniel!

Check back next Friday for another weekly roundup.

Jeremy Bailoo and Justin Varholick

The Netherlands publishes 2015 animal research statistics

There were 479,580 procedures on animals in the Netherlands for scientific purposes in 2015, down almost 15% from the previous year. This was according to the latest report by the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (Nederlandse Voedsel- en Warenautoriteit, NVWA).

numbers-of-animal-procedures-in-netherlands-dierproeven-2015

Species of animals used for research in Netherlands in 2015. Click to Enlarge.

There were falls in the number of most species used, with the exception of rats (up by under 0.5%) and other non-mammals (up 62%), of which most of the rise were frogs. Larger falls came from cows (down 56%), chickens (down 40%) and pigs (36%).

animal-research-by-species-in-netherlands-pie-chart-dierproeven-2015

Click to Enlarge.

Mice, rats, birds and fish are the most commonly used animals, together accounting for over 90% of all procedures – this is similar to previous years and the figures found in many other EU countries. Dogs, cats and primates together account for less than 0.3% of all procedures in the Netherlands.

animals-used-in-netherlands-holland-for-animal-research-dierproeven-1999-2015

Trends in animal procedures for research in the Netherlands 1999-2015. Click to Enlarge.

In 2014 the Netherlands began to produce a set of statistics in accordance with the EU’s method of counting (though they included 2013 figures for comparison). There is a minor difference between how the EU and Netherlands count animal procedures. Primarily in that the Dutch system includes animals killed without a prior procedure (for example, the killing of a mouse for tissue samples that has had no other intervention).

According to the report:

The EU system [is] based on:

The total number of animal studies registered in 2015 (528,159 procedures) minus the number of animals killed without preceding procedure (48,579 procedures) is the number of animal studies for the European registration (479,580 procedures).

We have chosen to use statistics according the EU method of counting for our entire analysis as it makes for an easier comparison with other EU countries. As we can see, both methods tend to reflect the same rises and falls in animal numbers. While the EU counting statistics do not go far back enough to see a trend, we can notice a downwards direction in the Dutch counting methods of number of procedures.

Severity of animal experiments in Holland

2015 was the second year for which the Netherlands has included statistics on the retrospective assessment of severity (i.e. reporting how much an animal actually suffered rather than how much it was predicted to suffer prior to the study). The report showed that 72.2% of procedures were classed as mild (78% in 2014), 19.3% as moderate (17% in 2014), 3.6% as severe (2.7% in 2014), and 4.9% as non-recovery (2% in 2014), where an animal is anaesthetised for surgery, and then not woken up afterwards. As this is the second year of retrospective assessment, the methods used are continuing to be developed (such grimace scales).

animal testing, animal research, vivisection, animal experiment

Most animals used in the Netherlands were mice.

Here is some other interesting information provided by the annual statistical release.

  • 7%  animals were genetically modified, 95.8% of which were mice.
  • Anaesthesia was not used in 66.5% of procedures because it was unnecessary, it was used in 31.1% of procedures where it was needed, and the remaining 2.37% was procedures where anaesthesia was not applied because it would disrupt the study. They record analgesia separately, that’s 83.9% (not used, not needed) – 9.24% (used) – 6.89% (not used, disruptive
  • The main purpose of research was applied research (29.7%), followed by toxicology testing (28.6%), fundamental scientific research (26.4%), breeding (10.7%) and finally education (4.09%)

For animal research statistics of countries around the world please see our statistics page.

Source of Dutch Statistics: https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/dierproeven/documenten/rapporten/2016/12/15/jaaroverzicht-dierproeven-en-proefdieren

See previous years’ reports:

Why we haven’t cured the common cold – a response to PETA’s science advisor, Dr. Julia Baines

For a previous post that also debunks comments made by PETA, read our article, “Biology, History and Maths: A lesson in debunking PETA’s nonsense”.

The United Kingdom recently released their annual statistics of scientific procedures on living animals and, as expected, interested parties weighed in and provided their views and interpretations of these numbers (e.g., here, here and here). While it is acknowledged that providing a context for these numbers is key, it is often quite difficult to do so without sufficient passage of time. Indeed, the timeframe required for the translation of research from bench to bedside takes years, if not decades. Moreover, as science is self-generating and self-correcting, there is no explicit requirement that an applied benefit results from all scientific research, including research performed on animals.

With this in mind, which facts can we infer from these annual statistics? We can, for example, quantify the number of animals used by species (mice, rats, primates, etc.), by establishment (e.g., government, university), and by study type (e.g., basic research, breeding, applied research) to name a few. We can also do a retrospective account of the amount of pain experienced (severity) by animals used in experimental procedures. What we should not do based on these statistics, is make false claims about the procedures involved in animal research and what animal research should have achieved. In what can only be viewed as an attempt to evoke the maximum emotional response, Dr. Julia Baines, a science advisor for PETA, was quoted as saying:

“Given that the latest Home Office statistics reveal that a staggering 4.14 million scientific procedures were carried out on animals in British laboratories in 2015, we should have a cure for everything, including the common cold, by now if this was a useful method of gaining scientific information.” [Our emphasis]

As Dr. Baines correctly points out, 4.14 million scientific procedures were carried out in British laboratories. And, it is true that 4.14 million is a large number of procedures. What Dr. Baines fails to do is to provide a fact-based context for those numbers, as for example was done here and here. Such a context would reflect, for example, that the number of animals used between 2013 and 2015 increased by only 0.5%. Next, Dr. Baines goes on to imply a causal relationship between animal use and a cure for all diseases, including the common cold. While this statement is at best an example of illogical abstraction and at worst logically flawed thinking below what one would expect from a “science advisor”, I found it useful to reflect on the question, “Why don’t we have a cure for the common cold?”

The first thing worth pointing out is that the common cold is not a single virus strain. Rhinoviruses are the most common form of the cold virus but even then there are over a hundred known types of rhinoviruses.

Furthermore, curing the common cold would mean eradicating a long list of viruses which cause similar symptoms, such as adenoviruses and coronaviruses. To further complicate matters, in a given geographical area, only 20 to 30 different types of the “cold virus” circulate each season, only 10% of those will show up next year for that season, and due to viral mutation, new strains will emerge across time.  Thus, we immediately see that for something seemingly as “simple” as the common cold, producing a “cure” is exceedingly difficult.

Rhinovirus caption: Surface of the human rhinovirus 16, one of the viruses which cause the common cold. Source:Wikipedia Commons

Rhinovirus caption: Surface of the human rhinovirus 16, one of the viruses which cause the common cold. Source:Wikipedia Commons

Moreover, the statement by Julia that we should have a “cure for everything” is something that cutting edge science is working on. The basic premise is that because there are many viruses and many diseases caused by viruses, as well as many viral mutations, it may be virtually impossible to eradicate all viruses by utilizing single vaccinations. For example, Todd Rider is working on a broad spectrum antiviral approach, dubbed DRACO, which causes infected cells to die while leaving uninfected cells intact.

DRACOs have worked against H1N1 influenza in cells and mice. NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) Source: Secondary citation from here: http://www.techinsider.io/todd-rider-draco-crowdfunding-broad-spectrum-antiviral-2015-12

DRACOs have worked against H1N1 influenza in cells and mice. NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Source: Secondary citation from here: http://www.techinsider.io/todd-rider-draco-crowdfunding-broad-spectrum-antiviral-2015-12

Consistent with the 3Rs, this method was first developed in vitro, and given that the method showed evidence of proof of principle, in vivo trials were begun, recognizing that currently, alternative methods such as in vitro studies complement rather than replace animal research.

Todd is not the only scientist working on this problem. Brian Lichty is adopting a somewhat different approach, looking at the mechanism via which immune cells detect viruses in the body and how they trigger an immune response. Both approaches recognize the complexity of curing viral diseases, both at the level of the host and the agent, and the valuable role which animal research plays in the development of cures.

What emerges from a review of scientific history and method is this: be patient.

Dr. Baines is not alone in wishing that cures and medical progress were faster and error-free – many of us have this wish. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way science or reality works. With the help of animal research, we have great potential for curing many diseases, including diseases which affect non-human animals. It just may take some time. More importantly, I encourage all readers of information on the internet to carefully scrutinize what is presented, including this post. We are often faced with common-sense notions in our everyday life, and we often do not question such information, particularly if it is something that is consistent with what we believe to be true. We saw this behaviour most recently with the release of the animal use statistics in the UK for 2015, with facts being flagrantly misrepresented and, frighteningly, widely publicized.

Jeremy D. Bailoo

The opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the interests of the University of Bern or the Division of Animal Welfare at the University of Bern.

USDA publishes 2015 Animal Research Statistics

Congratulations to the USDA/APHIS for getting ahead of the curve for a second time and making the US the first country to publish its 2015 animal research statistics. Overall, the number of animals (covered by the Animal Welfare Act) used in research fell 8% from 834,453 (2014) to 767,622 (2015).

These statistics do not include all animals as most mice, rats, and fish are not covered by the Animal Welfare Act – though they are still covered by other regulations that protect animal welfare. We also have not included the 136,525 animals which were kept in research facilities in 2015 but were not involved in any research studies.

USDA Statistics_2016_A

The statistics show that 53% of research is on guinea pigs, hamsters and rabbits, while 11% is on dogs or cats and 8% on non-human primates. In the UK, where mice, rats, fish and birds are counted in the annual statistics, over 97% of research is on rodents, birds and fish. Across the EU, which measures animal use slightly differently, 93% of research is on species not counted under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). If similar proportions were applied the US, the total number of vertebrates used in research in the US would be between 11 and 25 million, however there are no statistics to confirm this.

USDA Statistics_2016_B

If we look at the changes between the 2014 and 2015 statistics we can see a drop in the number of studies in hamsters, rabbits, cats and the “all other animals” category. Notably, there was a 7.3% rise in the number of non-human primates used although this comes the year after a 9.9% fall in their numbers.

USDA Statistics_2016_C

There has been a downward trend in the number of AWA-covered animals used in the last three decades, with a 64% drop in numbers between 1985 and 2015. It is also likely that, similar to the UK, a move towards using more genetically altered mice and fish has reduced the numbers of other AWA-covered species of animals used. In the UK this change in the species of animals studied has contributed to an overall increase in the numbers of animals used in research in the past 15 years.

Rises and falls in the number of animals used reflects many factors including the level of biomedical activity in a country, trending areas of research, changes to legislations at home and abroad, outsourcing research to and from other countries, and new technologies (which may either replace animal studies or create reasons for new animal experiments).

It is important to note that the number of animals cannot be tallied across years to get an accurate measure of total number of animals. This is because animals in longitudinal studies are counted each year. Thus, if the same 10 animals are in a research facility for 10 years, they would appear in the stats of each year – adding these numbers would incorrectly create the illusion of 100 animals being used.

Speaking of Research welcomes the open publication of these animal research statistics as offering the public a clear idea of what animal research goes on in their country.

Novo Nordisk demonstrate what good openness looks like

Openness has been a buzz word in science policy over the past five years, particularly for animal research. Today, Speaking of Research reached 250 animal research statements on our list of public statements, up from 200 in February (is your institution included?). Much of our focus has been on universities, particularly in the UK and US. In the past we have showcased examples of good openness including the University of Edinburgh, University of Cambridge, Imperial College London and Primate Products Inc.

Today we will focus on a Danish pharmaceutical company – Novo Nordisk – and their excellent efforts at greater openness and transparency around their animal research.

Novonordisk provide a whole section of their website on Animal Ethics. This starts out with a clear statement about the ongoing need for animals to test new pharmaceutical and medical products.

At present, some research using living animals is essential for all pharmaceutical companies in the discovery, development and production of new pharmaceutical and medical products.
[…]
We only use animals in research where no alternative exists. We recognise that not all research using animals can be replaced in the foreseeable future and consider it our responsibility to actively support the principles of the 3Rs.

This front page also talks about the “Responsible use of animals” including the 3Rs, efforts to replace animal tests and the importance of animal welfare. They include a video on the front page, which shows their facilities.

Novo Nordisk website providing videos of its research animals and facilities

Novo Nordisk website providing videos of its research animals and facilities

There’s dedicated subpages on Housing, Ethical Review, their 3Rs Award, Welfare  and External Contractors. They also have a page with nine different videos showing the animal enclosures. This is among the best sets of videos provided by an animal research institution showing its animals.

There is also a page which outlines the number of each species of animal used at Novo Nordisk over the past three years. In 2015, Novo Nordisk used 67,240 animals, of which almost 97% were mice or rats.

Finally, Novo Nordisk have produced a fantastic 24-page brochure titled “Animals in Pharmaceutical Research: A responsible approach” which explains more about their research, with a particular focus towards their 3Rs efforts.  The brochure provides plenty of pictures and information, as well as the principles of animal use which underpin their animal research work. Explaining why animal research is necessary to their work:

Before new pharmaceutical products can be studied in people, they need to be investigated in animals for efficacy, safety and toxicology, as it is not yet possible to examine the complex interactions in a living organism solely by the use of cell cultures and tissues.

Animals are only used in research and development at Novo Nordisk when no alternative exists. The use of animals in the early phases of the company’s drug discovery and development has been reduced by applying tissue cultures, cell-based and other non-animal models.

Click to Enlarge

Click to go to the brochure

Overall, the information provided by Novo Nordisk is fantastic – above and beyond any other pharmaceutical company’s online offering we have seen to date. If there was one possible area for improvement, it would be the provision of some case studies to explain a few examples of exactly how and why animals are used. This would also give them full marks on our animal research statement ratings.

So all that’s left to say is to congratulate Novo Nordisk for its fantastic web resources. Speaking of Research will continue to celebrate good examples of openness and public outreach wherever we can find it.

Has your institution got a statement or set or web pages explaining its animal research for the public? Is it on our list (if not, tell us)? Could it be improved? Speaking of Research has written about what makes a good public-facing webpage on an institution’s animal research.

Speaking of Research

Montage of images from the Novo Nordisk brochure on its animal research. Click to Enlarge

Montage of images from the Novo Nordisk brochure on its animal research. Click to Enlarge

We mightn’t like it, but there are ethical reasons to use animals in medical research

Trichur Vidyasagar, University of Melbourne

The media regularly report impressive medical advances. However, in most cases, there is a reluctance by scientists, the universities, or research institutions they work for, and the media to mention animals used in that research, let alone non-human primates. Such omission misleads the public and works against long-term sustainability of a very important means of advancing knowledge about health and disease.

Consider the recent report by Ali Rezai and colleagues, in the journal Nature, of a patient with quadriplegia who was able to use his hands by just thinking about the action. The signals in the brain recorded by implanted electrodes were analysed and fed into the muscles of the arm to activate the hand directly.

When journalists report on such bionic devices, rarely is there mention of the decades of research using macaques that eventually made these early brain-machine interfaces a reality for human patients. The public is shielded from this fact, thereby lending false credence to claims by animal rights groups that medical breakthroughs come from human trials with animal experiments playing no part.

Development of such brain-machine interfaces requires detailed understanding of how the primate brain processes information and many experiments on macaques using different interfaces and computing algorithms. Human ethics committees will not let you try this on a patient until such animal research is done.

Image: Understanding Animal Research

Image: Understanding Animal Research

 

These devices are still not perfect and our understanding of brain function at a neuronal level needs more sophistication. In some cases, the macaque neural circuitry one discovers may not quite match the human’s, but usually it is as close as we can get to the human scenario, needing further fine-tuning in direct human trials. However, to eliminate all animal research and try everything out on humans without much inkling of their effects is dangerous and therefore highly unethical.

The technique Dr Rezai’s team used on human patients draws heavily upon work done on monkeys by many groups. This can be seen by looking at the paper and the references it cites.

Another case in point is the technique of deep brain stimulation using implanted electrodes, which is becoming an effective means of treating symptoms in many Parkinson’s patients. This is now possible largely due to the decades of work on macaques to understand in detail the complex circuitry involved in motor control. Macaques continue to be used to refine deep brain stimulation in humans.

Ethical choices

The number of monkeys used for such long-term neuroscience experiments is relatively small, with just two used in the study above. Many more are used for understanding disease processes and developing treatment methods or vaccines in the case of infectious diseases such as malaria, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and Zika.

Approximately 60,000 monkeys are used for experiments for all purposes each year in the United States, Europe and Australia.

However, if one looks at what is at stake without these experiments on non-human primates, one must acknowledge a stark reality. In many cases, the situation is similar to that which once existed with polio. Nearly 100,000 monkeys were used in the 1950s to develop the polio vaccine. Before that, millions of people worldwide, mostly children, were infected with polio every year. Around 10% died and many were left crippled.

Now, thanks to the vaccine, polio is almost eradicated.

Similarly, about 200 million people contract malaria every year, of whom 600,000 (75% being children) die, despite all efforts to control the mosquitoes that transmit the disease. Development of a vaccine is our best chance, but again primates are necessary for this, as other species are not similarly susceptible to the parasitic infection.

Circumstances are similar with other devastating ailments such as Ebola, HIV and Zika. The ethical choice is often between using a few hundred monkeys or condemning thousands or more humans to suffer or die from each one of these diseases year after year.

image-20160505-19765-sm1aov
Reports of medical breakthroughs conveniently leave out animals used in the process.
Novartis AG/Flickr, CC BY

In the popular press and in protests against primate research, there is sometimes no distinction made between great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas) and monkeys such as macaques, leading to misplaced emotional reactions. To my knowledge, invasive experiments on great apes are not done anywhere, because of the recognition of their cognitive proximity to humans.

While the ape and human lineages separated six million years ago, there is an additional 20 to 35 million years of evolutionary distance from monkeys, which clearly lack the sophisticated cognitive capacities of the apes.

With urgent medical issues of today such as HIV, Ebola, malaria, Zika, diabetes and neurological conditions such as stroke and Parkinson’s disease, monkeys are adequate to study the basic physiology and pathology and to develop treatment methods. There is nothing extra to be gained from studying apes.

Alternatives have limitations

Opponents of animal research often cite the impressive developments of computer modelling, in-vitro techniques and non-invasive experiments in humans as alternatives to animal experiments. These have indeed given us great insights and are frequently used also by the very same scientists who use animals.

However, there are still critical areas where animal experimentation will be required for a long time to come.

Modelling can be done only on data already obtained and therefore can only build upon the hypotheses such data supported. The modelling also needs validation by going back to the lab to know whether the model’s predictions are correct.

Real science cannot work in a virtual world. It is the synergy between computation and real experiments that advances computational research.

In-vitro studies on isolated cells from a cell line cultured in the lab or directly taken from an animal are useful alternatives. This approach is widely used in medical research. However, these cells are not the same as the complex system provided by the whole animal. Unless one delves into the physiology and pathology of various body functions and tries to understand how they relate to each other and to the environment, any insights gained from studying single cells in in-vitro systems will be limited.

Though many studies can be done non-invasively on humans and we have indeed gained much knowledge on various questions, invasive experiments on animals are necessary. In many human experiments we can study the input to the system and the output, but we are fairly limited in understanding what goes on in between. For example, interactions between diet, the microbiome, the digestive system and disease are so complex that important relationships that have to be understood to advance therapy can only be worked out in animal models.

Of course, animals are not perfect models for the human body. They can never be. Species evolve and change.

However, many parts of our bodies have remained the same over millions of years of evolution. In fact, much of our basic knowledge about how impulses are transmitted along a nerve fibre has come from studying the squid, but our understanding also gets gradually modified by more recent experiments in mammals.

Higher cognitive functions and the complex operations of the motor system have to be studied in mammals. For a small number of these studies, nothing less than a non-human primate is adequate.

The choice of species for every experiment is usually carefully considered by investigators, funding bodies and ethics committees, from both ethical and scientific viewpoints. That is why the use of non-human primates is usually a small percentage of all animals used for research. In the state of Victoria, this constitutes only 0.02%.

Medical history can vouch for the fact that the benefits from undertaking animal experiments are worth the effort in the long run and that such experimentation is sometimes the only ethical choice. Taken overall, the principle of least harm should and does prevail. There may come a day when non-invasive experiments in humans may be able to tell us almost everything that animal experiments do today, but that is probably still a long way off.

Priorities in animal use

The ethical pressure put on research seems to be in stark contrast to that on the food industry. It is hypocritical for a society to contemplate seriously restricting the use of the relatively small number of animals for research that could save lives when far more animals are allowed to be slaughtered just to satisfy the palate. This is despite meat being a health and environmental concern.

To put this in perspective, for every animal used in research (mostly mice, fish and rats), approximately 2,000 animals are used for food, with actual numbers varying between countries and the organisations that collect the data.

The ratio becomes even more dramatic when you consider the use of non-human primates alone. In Victoria, for every monkey used in research, more than one million animals are used for meat production. However, the monitoring of the welfare of farm animals is not in any way comparable to that which experimental animals receive.

Reduced use of livestock can greatly reduce mankind’s ecological footprint and also improve our health. This is an ethical, health and environmental imperative. Animal experiments, including some on non-human primates, are also an ethical and medical imperative.

Trichur Vidyasagar, Professor, Department of Optometry and Vision Sciences and Melbourne Neuroscience Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.