Crash test bunnies: Does animal testing still matter to you?

Few issues are capable of provoking such an impassioned, conflicted and confused response from people than the use of animals in scientific tests. Ask the average person in the street whether they agree with animal experimentation and a significant percentage will typically say no. Query whether they would take a medicine that has not been thoroughly trialled, however, and they’re also likely to respond with a negative. Much depends on how the question is phrased, and protagonists on both sides of the ethical fence will use this to their advantage to stack up a statistical moral high ground.

In reality, almost everyone will pop a pill when they’ve got a bad headache or smudge some antiseptic ointment on a child’s wound, and very few people (particularly parents) wouldn’t accept a potentially curative treatment when confronted with a dreadful diagnosis of a life-threatening disease in themselves or a loved one. And every single drug in the medicine cabinet in your house or at the local hospital has been tested on animals. Several animals, in fact.

Vox pops indicate that general interest in the issue of animal experimentation has decreased somewhat since the heady days of the 1980s and ’90s, when campaigns and arguments about banning or severely limiting live laboratory testing and vivisection were at their most vociferous, led by organisations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). This might boil down to issue-fatigue, or many may have been put off by aggressive tactics pursued by both activists and law-makers that ultimately led to some campaigners being branded as terrorists under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. There also appears to be a common belief that laws must have changed by now, and a presumption that animals are better protected these days. The latter is true, but only in some respects and in certain regions.

On the face of it, the argument for ceasing experiments on animals for non-medical research has been pretty successful. Presented with brutal facts and awful images, people overwhelming find the thought of vanity products getting sprayed into the eyes of animals abhorrent. Cosmetics testing has been banned in the UK since 1998. It is now outlawed right across the EU and in many other countries, from New Zealand to India, and both the United States and Canada are currently processing legislation that looks likely to see the practice halted in North America. It’s worth remembering, though, that cosmetic testing is still permitted elsewhere and some brands continue to use ingredients that have been trialed on animals, even if the end product is supposedly ‘cruelty free’.

Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Testing of new medical treatments on animals remains widespread, however—mandatory even. In most Western countries, the law stipulates that all pharmaceutical drugs must be tested on at least two animals—a rodent and a larger species, such as a cat, dog or a monkey—before they can be prescribed for people.

Research shows that the majority of the population in places such as the UK view this as a necessary evil, and support animal testing if it is effective, and if there is no viable alternative. But these two ‘ifs’ are big qualifications, and the answers to the questions they pose are increasingly being hotly debated. And not just by animal rights activists, but also by medical professionals and scientists, some of whom—such as the Doctors Against Animal Experiments Germany group— seriously question the reliability of laboratory tests on animals.

In January this year, one person was killed and several others were left severely brain damaged after they took part in a clinical trial of a new medicinal painkiller in a laboratory in Rennes, France. At the risk of stating the obvious—this should never have happened.

Investigative journalists at the French newspaper Le Fiagor soon uncovered documents describing how the drug had been trialed for months on animals. For 13 weeks, mice, dogs and monkeys were given doses of the molecule that seemingly did the damage (BIA 10-2474), and rats were treated with it for 26 weeks.

None of these tests revealed any serious signs of toxicity, so the next phase began: trials on human subjects, with the tragic results that are still being analysed. And this is just the latest case to expose a raw nerve at the heart of one of the most complicated ethical debates our species beats itself up about: vivisection.

Organised opposition to animal experimentation has been around since the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was founded in 1898. Whatever your stance on it, vivisection is a pretty nasty noun. In Latin, vivus means ‘alive’, and sectio, means ‘cutting’. In some cases that’s exactly what happens, but in practice vivisection can cover a spectrum of scientific activity, from causing physical and mental harm to an animal, through deliberate infection or injury, to the administration of experimental drugs and the monitoring of their effect on the subject.

Such treatments will only be inflicted on larger animals, however, if they have successfully passed the initial trials on the rodents. The fact that rodents represent around 84 per cent of all animals tested upon is one clue, perhaps, to the margin of error that scientists work with.

And sometimes, even tests that do seem to be tracking well, don’t work out quite so peachy when they’re transferred to humans—as was tragically demonstrated in France. Because, again at the risk of stating the obvious, most people are really quite different to rats, cats, dogs and even apes such as chimps and bonobos, with whom we share 98.8 percent of our DNA profile.

lab monkey

As many pet owners may have discovered to their cost this Easter, dogs can’t eat chocolate. Similarly, paracetamol is poisonous for cats but can be used to alleviate suffering in humans, and many animals can consume levels of arsenic that would be fatal for us.

The list of biological differences between species that determine tolerance to toxicity is a long one, however, and there are even disparities between how people of different ethnic backgrounds respond to different drugs, so live testing medical treatments is always going to be problematic. When it comes to the use of animals, it’s also a highly emotive issue, and the water is often muddied by misinformation. The Thalidomide tragedy that unfurled in the 1950s and ’60s—when the children of women who had taken the new drug (which was designed to alleviate anxiety and insomnia, but also helped lessen the severity of morning sickness) were born with limb mutations—is a classic example of this.

It’s often held up by anti-vivisection groups as the ultimate example of the untrustworthiness of animal testing, but the fact is, Thalidomide hadn’t been tested on pregnant animals prior to being released. In subsequent trials, when experiments were conducted on pregnant animals to prove the connection between the infants’ deformities and the drug, tests did produce mutations in the offspring of various species, including rats and rabbits. This led directly to the passing of the UK medicines act 1968. Also as a result of this debacle, new drugs are now routinely tested on pregnant animals, according to pro-Animal testing groups like Speaking of Research, who use the failings of the original Thalidomide tests as an example of why more comprehensive trials remain necessary.

Dr Laura Waters—a researcher at Huddersfield University who specialises in researching alternatives to animal testing in the development of medicines, cosmetics and household products—treads through the politically and emotionally explosive minefield of her chosen subject with great care, diplomatically avoiding too much non-constructive confrontation.

‘I never set out to criticise animal testing,’ she explained to Love Nature. ‘It is the way it is, and there are some great medicines out there that we wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for animal testing, but my research is about finding alternatives for the future.’

‘I do love animals, and that is part of it,’ Dr Waters admits. ‘But I genuinely don’t think animal testing is particularly effective, and the scientist in me wants to find something that works better. Because things go wrong. Lots of drugs get through the animal testing stage but then fail on humans, which is a sure sign that it’s not working.’

‘In the UK and across Europe, a lot of really good work is being done with ‘in silico‘ testing. This is where computer modeling is used to predict how people will react to a treatment. At the moment it’s used in conjunction with animal tests, because that’s the legal requirement, but it does minimise how much animal testing is done, by getting a drug to a certain point before it’s trialed on live subjects.’

In fact, several research techniques have been developed that could potentially supersede animal experiments in time. Recent reports have described how scientists have created miniature test tube ‘brains’ that can be used for studying neurological diseases and treatments without the need to resort to laboratory research using animals. These mini minds are the size of a pinhead, but contain many of the specialised cells of the adult human brain and are equivalent in terms of development to the brain of a two-month-old human foetus, Professor Thomas Hartung of Johns Hopkins University recently told the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference.

And then there’s the real sci-fi fodder, such as organs-on-chips: microchips developed by a multidisciplinary team of scientists at Havard’s Wyss Institute, which, as the website describes: ‘recapitulate the microarchitecture and functions of living organs, such as the lung, heart, and intestine’. Each individual organ-on-chip is roughly the size of a computer memory stick, and contains hollow microfluidic channels lined by living human cells. Because the microdevices are translucent, they provide a window into the inner workings of human organs and they are being heralded as another serious alternative to animal testing.

In the light of such developments, and faced with public and professional squeamishness about the ethics and efficacy of experimentation on animals, things are changing rapidly in the world of medical research.

Just this month, PETA jubilantly announced news that the Dutch Parliament had passed legislation compelling the Biomedical Primate Research Centre (BPRC) to reduce the number of tests it carries out on monkeys, and focus on developing humane, non-animal testing methods instead. The centre, based in Rijswijk in the Netherlands, is Europe’s largest primate-testing laboratory, and it currently experiments on around 1,300 rhesus monkeys and marmosets, keeping the animals in cages and injecting them with various diseases and drugs.

And in the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced at the end of last year that it would be ending its support for invasive testing on chimpanzees, and made plans to retire the last remaining chimps it had set aside for biomedical research to a refuge.

Since 2013, around 300 US government–owned chimpanzees have already been rehoused in Chimp Haven, a federally approved sanctuary in Louisiana, following a 2011 Institute of Medicine report that concluded science had advanced to the point that most research conducted on the animals could no longer be justified. Fifty chimps had been kept in reserve, in case of a public health emergency or some extreme situation, but Dr Francis Collins, director of NIH, recently announced that the program would cease completely, saying: ‘It’s time to say we’ve reached the point in the US where invasive research on chimpanzees is no longer something that makes sense.’

Of course, there has been criticism of these moves, especially in the wake of the Ebola epidemic that began raging across western Africa in 2014, killing well over 11,000 people. Wild chimpanzees can catch and transmit the Ebola virus, and some scientists have expressed concern that efforts to create a vaccine for these animals could be hindered without research chimps for testing. ‘Is that ultimately in the public health interest?’ asked Frankie Trull, president of the pro-testing Foundation for Biomedical Research, when asked about the recent decision.

But in many ways, this change of direction was almost inevitable, for economic as well as ethical reasons. ‘Animal testing is very expensive,’ says Dr Waters. ‘Scientists don’t undertake it lightly. Computer testing is so much cheaper. The pharmaceutical industry is very keen to develop alternatives.’

In June 2015, the US Fish and Wildlife Service designated all chimpanzees, including those held in captivity, as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. This instantly made invasive testing on the animals legally problematic as well as prohibitively pricey. If a scientist wanted to perform such experiments they had to submit detailed proposals justifying the need to do so, and Collins says that not a single request has been submitted by a researcher for several years. ‘This is the result of five years of careful analysis of whether or not we need chimps for research, and the answer is no,’ he said. ‘They are our closest relative—they deserve special consideration.’

However, Collins confirmed that the decision to phase out experiments on chimpanzees would not extend to other nonhuman primates, including baby rhesus monkeys, which have been the focus of recent PETA campaigns. The organisation welcomed the end of testing on chimps, but has sworn to continue its campaign on behalf of other animals. ‘We’ll be pushing NIH to send these chimpanzees to sanctuary as soon as possible and to extend greater protections for the other 100,000 monkeys and other primates imprisoned in laboratories,’ said Justin Goodman, director of laboratory investigations at PETA.

With animal rights groups and some scientists constantly pushing and looking for viable alternatives to animal experiments, the real litmus test of whether such tests ever become acceptable might boil down to a more democratic decision.

‘One of the biggest problems is convincing the public,’ Dr Waters told us. ‘If you ask people, “Would you take this drug that hasn’t been tested on animals?”, in my experience, most would say “no”.’

What would you say?