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Animal Research—Indispensable or Inhumane?

feature image showing white lab rats for animal research

Recently, U.S Republican Representative Mike Bishop introduced a federal bill entitled “Kittens in Traumatic Testing Ends Now Act in 2018.” Known as the Kitten Act, the bill seeks to end animal research on kittens and cats. But the bill, which has bipartisan support, raises a larger question about animal research. Should animals be used for research? If so, which animals should be used in research and which ones should not? With animal research playing a tremendous role in modern-day health explorations, examining this issue further is important.

Rising Trends Against Animal Research

Opposition to using animals for research is not new. Organizations like PETA have advocated for decades already against animals used in research. The primary reason for this opposition stems from its perceived cruelty to animals used in research. Increased media attention, including social media accounts, has made many question the use of animals for research purposes. In addition, animal research results are far from perfect. Significant uncertainty about the results is often present. Likewise, animal research is costly. These issues have helped politicians and advocacy groups alike gain support in opposing animal use in research.

Putting Animal Research in Perspective

While researchers should avoid cruelty at all costs to the animals they use in research, reason for debate does exist. Statistics regarding animal research offers a more objective way in determining the utility of animal use in research. Overall, researchers use about 26 million animals for research in the US each year. Over 95% of these animals used in research are rodents, birds, or fish. Likewise, the number of animals used in other industries is staggering when compared with animals used in research. Each year, Americans consume over 9 billion chickens and require 150 million cattle, pigs, and sheep for various products. In fact, the ratio of chickens used for food to animals used in research is 340-to-1!

What Are Alternatives to Animal Research?

Advances in technology have provided some new alternatives to animal research. Specifically, the use of chemical databases and computer programs offer a great alternative in some cases. A recent study looking at toxic effects of new drugs found database “read-across” to be between 80% and 95% as accurate as animal research. Cell line cultures offer another alternative to live animals used in research. As these methods improve, opportunities to reduce animal research might be possible.

However, these types of alternatives have notable limitations. Animal research provides a living organism with complex organ systems similar to human beings. Computer programs and cell lines cannot offer this. Also, without animal research, discoveries like insulin and the polio vaccine would not have been possible even today. Did you know chimpanzees have 99% of the same DNA as humans, whereas mice have 98% in common? While cell lines might be better in this area, only animal research offers a living system for more accurate predictions.

The Benefits Versus the Costs of Animal Research

From a human point of view, animal research offers tremendous potential. For example, recent research showed that gene therapy used in paralyzed rats restored sensation and some movement in paralyzed limbs. In another study, a new hepatitis virus was found in New World monkeys that might provide important answers in preventing and treating hepatitis B. What are the benefits to us? For spinal cord injuries, over 17,000 new cases occur each year in the US. For hepatitis B, hundreds develop cirrhosis or liver cancer from the disease. These figures help support the use of animals in research.

While human populations mainly benefit, animals also benefit from animal research. Researchers at Johns Hopkins use animal research to guide new cancer treatments in dogs. Likewise, animal research provided several veterinary treatments pertaining to rabies, distemper, feline leukemia, and canine parvovirus. Although not the primary intent of animal research, it is noteworthy that benefits to animals from this research do occur. This and the significant impacts animal research has made on human health demand consideration.

Should Animals Be Used in Research?

According to the California Biomedical Research Association, every medical breakthrough in the last century has been because of animal research. Among scientists, nearly 9 out of every 10 support its use. It is also important to realize that strict legislation concerning animal research is already in place. . Whether kittens need to be used in research remains to be determined. But so far, new technologies do not appear to avoid animal research.

Animal research is still very active in all fifty states through grants from the National Institutes of Health. And the role animal research will play in advancing gene therapies and precision medicine will likely be profound. The need, however, for greater transparency and open communications about the use of current animal research is paramount. Dialogue needs to occur among researchers, veterinarians, animal workers, and the public. Through these opportunities to exchange information, we can determine the usefulness of animals in research. This could be the ultimate solution in coming to a consensus about the role animals in research should take.

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