By: Ross Keller, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program
A question was submitted to our blog asking: “How does animal research advance medicine?” It is an important question, and I will do my best to answer it.
The average human life expectancy has increased dramatically over the past 100 years. In 1900, most did not live past 50. Now, most will live to see their 75th birthday. This increase is largely due to advances in medicine that would not have been possible without animal research.
In fact, many scientific organizations as well as the World Health Organization and the United States Department of Health and Human Services estimate that animal research has played a part in almost every major medical advancement over the past century. This fact alone underscores the importance that animal research has played in medicine.
Despite all the benefits of animal research in advancing medicine, many opponents of animal research ask the question, “What gives humans the right to use another creature for our own advancement?” It’s true that this is not a question with an easy answer. Every person has his or her own values and is entitled to his or her own opinion on that question.
In general, animal research falls into two broad categories as it relates to advancing medicine: 1. Determining how a disease works, and 2. finding out if a potential treatment is effective and safe.
To answer the basic questions about how a disease or biological process works, one needs to be able to see how all the different cells and organs in the body work together and where something goes wrong. This is not possible with simpler models such as a single cell culture because there are no tissues, organs, or varying cell types.
For example, a tumor that grows in the body cannot be studied as it would be found naturally without a living host. A tumor is a complex tissue that involves cancer cells, immune cells, and several types of support cells as well as a blood supply. Trying to study how a tumor arises or maintains itself using culture methods without eventually verifying those studies in an animal could lead to results that not only do not advance medicine, but in some cases could set it back.
After elucidating how a disease process works, sometimes a vulnerability can be found that could ameliorate or even cure that disease. This vulnerability can sometimes be exploited in the form of a drug. But first the drug must first go through several stages of testing. They begin in cell cultures, and it is determined if the drug functions as it theoretically should—targeting the right molecules within a cell.
However, this is not the end of the process. Oftentimes, a drug may have side effects that are not apparent until the drug is tried on an actual organism. It may not target the same cell when it begins circulating in the body. Or, different dosages may cause different side effects. These questions and more need to be answered before any human treatment can be tried.
Despite the benefits and necessity of animal research, the topic remains a sensitive issue—inciting emotional and forceful opinions on both sides. As a scientist, I must advocate for the use of animals in biomedical research. While I (and I believe every scientist) would prefer to unlock the secrets of biomedicine and design treatments to diseases without the use of animals, the technology that would allow that, at this point in time, remains science fiction.
Society has taken great care to ensure animals used in research are treated humanely.
Any study that requests to use animals must go through a rigorous review via the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). Each institution has its own committee, which include a variety of people including a lay person not involved in research. The committee ensures that the study is run properly and follows federal regulations laid out in the Animal Welfare Act and the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Furthermore, every medical laboratory in which animals are used for biomedical research takes great care to follow the 3 “R”s. 1. Reduce the number of animals used in studies to the minimum necessary. 2. Replace animals with other models whenever possible. 3. Refine procedures to make sure animals are treated as comfortably and humanely as possible.
Overall, animal research has and will continue to advance medicine in ways most people never even consider. In one way or another, either ourselves or through family members, we have all felt the benefits of animal research—every person who is cured of cancer, every person who lives a long life despite an HIV diagnosis, every person who keeps control of their diabetes, every person who has had surgery with the use of anesthetics (nearly all), every person who takes aspirin for headaches, every person who takes antibiotics for an infection.
The list goes on, and will continue to grow.