Ian Barry
Staff Columnist

As a senior majoring in behavioral neuroscience, I am required to complete a scientific research project. This summer, I completed my research with an experiment looking at the capacity of a drug to treat traumatic brain injury. As necessary for such a project, I used rats as my research model. You guessed it: that involves giving rats brain injuries. When I describe this aspect of my research to others, the reactions range from the usual dismay on behalf of those poor rats to the occasional bemused inquiry as to where one gets brain-injured rats.

Animal research is (and has been for a long time) an essential part of the scientific process. If you want to study how a disease progresses, the effects of brain injury, the effects of a drug, or even some aspect of behavior, you have two options. Study it in animals or study it in humans.

Human trials are usable for some things. Take drugs that have already been shown to be relatively safe, or noninvasive behavioral studies. But there are a lot of things you can’t do with humans- and they’ll put you in jail if you try. So for everything else, there’s animal research. And while it’s sometimes distasteful, it really is the best option.

Lest you think I am some cruel animal-abusing taskmaster, think about it this way: by and large, animals in the laboratory have a much better life than animals in the wild. They’re in a secure, temperature-controlled environment with consistent supplies of food and water. Animals in the wild live in natural states of fear and near-starvation, always searching for the next meal while attempting to evade predators. Laboratory animals already have it better than 90 percent of the animals on the planet.

We scientists hardly have free reign to do anything we want with them either. All research institutions in the US utilizing animals for research are required to submit to the oversight of institutional review panels, which evaluate projects based on the perceived suffering of the animals, the necessity of the procedures, and the scientific or medical benefit from the research. Here at Washington College, that’s the IACUC, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

Applicants for animal projects are required to search scientific literature for alternatives to animal research, such as invitro models using cell cultures. If such alternatives exist, and are of sufficient quality to provide valid results, there is a very good chance that one’s application to use animals will be rejected. If the study is authorized, researchers must take steps to ameliorate any suffering the animals experience, as long as doing so would not interfere with the study.

Had alternatives to live animals existed, I would gladly have used them in my study. But the fact is, there is no system that can approximate the chemistry and interconnection of a living brain. In order for my data to have the slightest degree of applicability to the outside world, animal models were a requirement.

Besides, what happens when you don’t do animal testing? Look at the thalidomide crisis in the ‘50s and ‘60s. No animal testing was done, and had it been, it would have averted thousands of cases of birth defects. Animals across the world live and die every day, and animals in the laboratory are no different. But they are different in that they are contributing to medical and scientific progress. It is no exaggeration to say that nearly every major medical breakthrough in the past century has depended in large part on animal research.

So what do I think? I think animal research is a necessary evil. It’s not an ideal tool, but it’s the best one we have, and it does more good than not. Plus, living without it pretty much means eschewing most of modern medicine, so good luck with that.

The Elm

12 thoughts on “In Defense of Animal Testing: ‘Not the Ideal Tool, But the Best One’

  1. Great to see scientists speaking their mind by explaining – rationally – why animal research is used.

    By Tom Holder Oct 22,2012 @ 4:21 am

  2. It is helpful if before forming an opinion, one checks the facts – although, come to think of it, are there not Americans who declare they will not be influenced by facts? Are you one of those?
    Animal testing WAS in fact done on thalidomide; moreover, the test guidelines remain largely unchanged today. It is very doubtful if a complication like the teratogenicity of thalidomide would be caught today, since apart from humans, very few animals are susceptible to that particular side effect. Further info http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/science/when-animals-fail-the-test, and many other places – there really was a lot of research done on that catastrophe.

    By Ulrike Gross MD Oct 22,2012 @ 8:25 am

  3. I agree with you, animal research is needed. We can not move into human clinical trials without this safeguard.
    For those that are affected, have a disorder or a malfunction medical research is their only hope. Preventing animal research to take place is to prevent those affected from medical advancment and their hope for a cure, an ailment or a life saving treatment. We all need to stand up for science and medical advancement using animals. We need to support those that day in day out work towrds finding cures and saving lives. Perhaps yours or of a family member?
    You can do so by signing this online petition :
    http://www.change.org/en-CA/petitions/support-medical-progress-through-science-and-animal-research

    By Raemdonck Oct 22,2012 @ 10:28 am

  4. Thank you for writing a well informed, cool headed post about animal research.

    Much appreciated.

    Matt

    By Matteo Oct 22,2012 @ 10:32 am

  5. Wel said and good argument. Research is necessary: cells in culture come from….animals and data that make a computer model run come from…animal research looking at basic physiological mechanisms. Putting one’s head in the sand does not make the problem or need go away.

    By DorisD Oct 23,2012 @ 12:50 pm

  6. I firmly conclude that in this country today, the process of animal experimentation is loathsome to the human race. Why with the scientist today do we still need to test on invertebrate creatures?

    By Erin and Skyler May 08,2013 @ 10:03 am

  7. its funny how the same people who are “fighting “for animal rights are also the same people who are benefiting from the medical research that is done at the expence of the animals. when they are ill they want to be treated but yet they condem the method in which their treatment is created. it is not a perfect world we live in, we have to make to with what we have and right now animal testing is the best option.

    By Adelaide May 14,2013 @ 7:32 am

  8. I just want to make a small correction regarding the thalidomide example you used.

    Animal testing was done on (IIRC) guinea pigs, but because it was not originally intended for use against morning sickness and I suppose also due to a lack of foresight, they did not do any testing on pregnant animals. When they did (and they did after the fact), they found that the guinea pigs produced defective off-spring. Had they of done such testing prior to the marketing of thalidomide, the ensuing disaster would certainly have been avoided.

    By K Jul 07,2013 @ 2:55 am

  9. animal research looking at basic physiological mechanisms. Putting one’s head in the sand does not make the problem or need go away.

    By newsamed Sep 30,2015 @ 2:49 pm

  10. they found that the guinea pigs produced defective off-spring. Had they of done such testing prior to the marketing of thalidomide

    By Salomon Mar 10,2016 @ 3:48 am

  11. I am a graduate student in health informatics and although animal testing will not be part of the scope of my research, I am being exposed to its concepts via lectures and other mediums. Generally, it is distasteful to me but I understand your premise and argument. My bigger concern is with academic “research”. I would love an honest and practical answer to this: did your research amount to anything at all?

    I am sure you published literature and proceeded through peer reviews but honestly, once all the academia bullshit is peeled away, did you research produce anything other than a “contribution to science”. Are lives being saved by your research? have markets and economics developed from your research? Perhaps yours did, but generally the breadth of academic research is way out of control and academia need to focus on application and development. Perhaps you could have concluded a dissertation/research on previously completed neurological testing and focused on its application and development.

    By j May 11,2016 @ 7:36 pm

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