Computer simulation is making great strides in helping biomedical researchers explore how the human body functions and what can be done to help it when it undergoes trauma or disease, as my colleague Carlos Gonzalez describes in a recent article. But even the best biomedical engineer can’t include the germane parameters and variables in biological models or simulations if she or he is unaware of them. That’s just one reason actual animals are used to test new drugs and biomedical devices to see if they work and are safe. But there are people who believe experimenting on animals is cruel and unusual, if not worse. There are several other myths surrounding animal experimentation that support this view.
To set the record straight, at least from their standpoint, the Foundation for Biomedical Research has debunked nine of these myths:
Myth 1: Animals are not needed for medical research. Most medical breakthroughs have come from epidemiological studies, computer models, and cell cultures.
Fact: Lab animals have played vital roles in nearly every major medical advance of the last century. Practically every present-day protocol for preventing, controlling, curing disease, and relieving pain is based on knowledge gained directly or indirectly through research with animals. Physicians and scientists overwhelmingly agree that animals provide insights into humans because of the genetic and physiological similarities between us and them. Knowledge derived from computer and mathematical models, cell and tissue cultures, clinical observations, and epidemiology are only adjuncts to basic animal research.
As yet, there is no complete alternative to biomedical research with animals. Surgical procedures, drugs, medical devices, and other treatments still need to be first tested on animals. That’s because even the most advanced technology cannot replicate all of the cellular interactions going on in a living organism.
Researchers are using technology to reduce the need for animals in development and testing, and one day they may not be needed.
Myth 2: Dogs, cats, and monkeys are the most popular research animals.
Fact: Practically all research animals are mice and rats bred for the purpose. Dogs, cats, and non-human primates make up less than one half of 1% of the total number of experimental animals, and fewer have been used each year for the past quarter century. For dogs and cats, the numbers used in animal research have declined by more than 50% since 1979. (FYI: Dogs are especially useful for studying lung and heart disease, two of the major killers of humans because their cardiovascular and respiratory systems closely match ours. And Nobel Prize-winning research on the immunological basis for organ rejection was done with dogs. Similarly, Nobel Prize-winning research with cats contributed enormously to the study of eye disorders such as strabismus or “cross-eye” and amblyopia, an impairment that can cause blindness in one or both eyes.)
The number of primates needed represents 0.2% of research animals and has remained relatively constant at about 50,000 per year for the past decade. Non-human primates, mainly rhesus monkeys, provide irreplaceable knowledge to those studying arteriosclerosis, reproductive disorders, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, and infectious diseases such as viral hepatitis and AIDS.
Myth 3: Lost and stolen pets are sold to laboratories.
Fact: Despite rumors and urban legends, there is no evidence behind the claim that millions of dogs and cats are taken from homes and shelters and sold to laboratories. In fact, scientists and biomedical engineers do not want to do research on pets.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), one of several government agencies overseeing animals used in medical research, about 66,000 dogs and 22,000 cats were needed for biomedical research in 2006. The vast majority of these were bred specifically for research. The remainder were acquired directly from the “death row” of animal pounds or purchased from a USDA-licensed and regulated dealer.
Myth 4: No laws or government regulations protect research animals.
Fact: There are federal regulations governing the care and use of animals in biomedical research that are considered more extensive than those covering humans used in research. For example, the Animal Welfare Act sets high standards on the housing, feeding, cleanliness, ventilation, and medical care of research animals. It also requires anesthesia or analgesic drugs for potentially painful procedures and during post-operative care.
Research institutions are also required by law to establish an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) to oversee their work with animals. IACUCs require that researchers justify their need for animals, select the most appropriate species, and study the fewest number of animals possible to answer a specific question.
The U.S. Public Health Service Act requires that institutions getting research funds from the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration, or Centers for Disease Control follow standards set out in the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. Under the PHS policy, institutions must follow detailed animal-care recommendations and establish an IACUC to ensure all animals are treated responsibly and humanely.
Myth 5: Researchers don’t care about the well-being of animals.
Fact: Researchers are concerned about research animals’ conditions for humane, compassionate, and scientific reasons. This is not a controversial position; no researchers support inhumane or irresponsible treatment. After all, poor care leads to unreliable research data. For valid results, animals must be in good condition and appropriately healthy. And most researchers believe pain and distress degrade immune systems so researchers protect their animals from undue stress.
In the words of the esteemed Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, Chancellor Emeritus of the Baylor College of Medicine and Director of the DeBakey Heart Center: “These scientists, veterinarians, physicians, surgeons, and others who do research in animal laboratories are as much concerned about the care of the animals as anyone can be. Their respect for the dignity of life and compassion for the sick and disabled, in fact, is what motivated them to search for ways of relieving the pain and suffering caused by diseases.”
Myth 6: Research animals are kept in pain.
Fact: Most biomedical research does not cause research animals significant discomfort or distress.
In fact, 57% of all research procedures with animals involved no more than slight or momentary pain or distress (i.e., an injection), according to the 2006 USDA Annual Report; 38% of the research procedures used anesthesia and postoperative painkillers. But in 7% of the procedures, neither anesthesia nor pain medication could be used because it would have interfered with research results. However, in these cases, discomfort is minimized.
Myth 7: Stem-cell research does not need research animals.
Fact: Even stem-cell treatments must first demonstrate safety and efficacy in animals before they can be used on humans. In the future, stem cells may be able to replicate tissues and organs so accurately that fewer animals would be required for some types of research. However, there is still much unknown about stem cells and how they can best be used to treat diseases and disorders. It is critical, therefore, that scientists have the ability to explore all avenues of stem-cell research to most fully benefit human and animal health.
Myth 8: Animal research exploits one species for the exclusive benefit of humans.
Fact: Practically all biomedical research that uses lab animals advances veterinary medicine as well as human medicine and helps animals live longer, happier, and healthier lives. For example, diseases affecting both humans and animals are prevented by using vaccines and many conditions are successfully treated, in both humans and animals, with antibiotics.
From asthma to epilepsy, from high blood pressure and heart disease to cancer, people and their pets share a host of diseases and therapies. Animal research has led to effective new drugs, devices, and surgical procedures for human and veterinary medical care.
Myth 9: If you really love animals, you support the animal rights movement and its efforts to end animal research.
Fact: Most Americans support improving human and animal health by responsibly and humanely using animals in scientific research. And most Americans love animals. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive.
Though it isn’t easy to reconcile the love and appreciation for animals and the need for animal research, knowing animals are treated respectfully, responsibly, and as humanely as possible lets us understand and respect animal research.
Those who want to end animal research because they choose to reject its well-established validity and usefulness or because they believe the life of a rat is equal in importance to the life of a child have gone to shocking lengths to subvert medical and scientific progress. University labs have been vandalized, animals stolen, and years of research data destroyed.