Illustration by Quim Paredes

Animal Research: Advocating for Animal Rights without Compromising Scientific Progress

Is it possible to reconcile the ethical considerations of animal research without compromising scientific progress?

Nov 17, 2018

Despite the ethical ramifications that come with animal experimentation, there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that certain animals are still needed in order to make progress in biological, medical and behavioral sciences. Current technologies and experimental procedures like computer simulations and in vitro studies cannot perfectly simulate the complexity of living organisms and their interconnected systems. While animal research seems to be a necessary evil in producing relevant information, does it necessarily conflict with considerations for animal welfare, or is it possible to reconcile the ethical considerations of such research without compromising scientific progress?
Because a lot of research eventually aims to have some direct benefit to humans, vertebrate organisms — mice, fish and nonhuman primates — are often used. Some examples include studying the development of zebrafish from embryos, circadian rhythms in mice and behavioral studies in primates. Historically, animal experimentation has procured significant information for a broad range of human conditions, such as the discovery and extraction of insulin and the development of psychiatric medication to alleviate depression and anxiety — particularly evident as the majority of Nobel Prize awards in Physiology or Medicine involve animal models. While some of these experiments involve noninvasive procedures that, with proper handling by researchers, are nonlethal and inflict no damage on the animals, there are many other investigations where physical or psychological harm on the animal is unavoidable, such as those that induce diseases like cancer in model organisms. At many institutions, including NYU Abu Dhabi, a University Animal Welfare Committee sets regulations to ensure that consideration has been given to replace animals where possible, to reduce the number of animals used and to refine the experimental methodology for minimized suffering. Though these regulations certainly reduce the damage done to animals, it does not eradicate it completely.
An alternative to experimenting on vertebrates is to use simpler, invertebrate animals. A common example is Drosophila melanogaster — the fruit fly — which for about a century has been used as a model organism in biological research. Species like these have much shorter life cycles and are relatively inexpensive to maintain. The Drosophila genome also contains genes that match with 75 percent of human diseases, so there is potential for the Drosophila as a tool in drug testing. But evidently, there are certain limitations to using Drosophila and other invertebrates to produce results relevant to human biology. Due to vastly different taxonomies, our anatomies and physiologies differ greatly. The animal chosen for a study tends to be very specific to what is being researched, and alternative models like the Drosophila, although more convenient at times, are unable to cover the entire range of research that is conducted.
Moreover, switching to simpler animal models does not entirely resolve the issue of using animals in the first place. The question arises as to whether it is more ethical to make use of certain groups of animals rather than others, and what criteria we should use to make this type of distinction. Should we value the pain experienced by mice and primates in experimental procedures in the same way that we value the pain experienced by fish and insects? With the regulations placed on vertebrate research being much more extensive than those for invertebrate research, the present scientific community views research on invertebrates as kinder — perhaps akin to how certain invasive procedures performed on animals would be considered unethical if done on humans instead.
Nevertheless, it appears as if animal research will not stop within the near future, at least not without coming at the expense of producing relevant scientific information. However, advancements in technology may decrease our reliance on animal models over time. For instance, initiatives worldwide are looking into developing tissue chips that can model the structure and function of organs for a variety of medical purposes. Drug trials on these artificial tissues could replace those performed on mice. While the future direction of animal testing remains unknown, reducing the costs placed on animal welfare should be considered as well as securing research results.
Nathan Quimpo is Copy Chief. Email him at
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