It is undeniable that we have learnt a lot about humans based on studies that have been conducted on animals. From the shocking effects of maternal deprivation shown to us by Harlow’s monkeys in the 1950s, to the finding that neurotransmitter levels in the brain can alter emotional state following tests on rodents the decade later, we are becoming increasingly well-equipped to maximise human health through discoveries made by testing on animals.
While the latter of these examples may be justified by its important application in the development of anti-depressants, there are other experiments where the benefits to humans, and certainly to the animals involved, are less clear.
Some even appear to be needless, calling into question how far we can justify such practices. What about the 1950s Russian multi-dog experiment where the head of a puppy was surgically removed from its own body and attached alongside the head and body of an adult dog?
While we would hope that ethics standards have improved since then, research into dental implants currently being conducted by Swedish researchers at Gothenburg University has sparked a lot of controversy. Despite over 80,000 signatures opposing the medical trials, the final stage of the research will see the 6 dogs involved in the study euthanised for tissue analysis following experiments that included removal of their teeth.
As highlighted by the study above, the main issue with animal testing is undoubtedly the suffering caused without consent. However, in an advancing world of technology, it may now be possible to come up with viable alternatives that do not bring harm to animals. But what are they?
The Draize Test, developed in 1944, is a toxicology test involving a painful procedure where animals such as rabbits are directly used to measure the irritating effects of chemicals on the eye. However, the in vitro culture of bovine cornea, using cells rather than directly testing on the animal, may considerably reduce animal suffering while still effectively determining the toxicology of test chemicals.
Granted, this is still a form of animal testing. However, using smaller animals and bacterial organisms that take up less space and have a shorter life cycle are ideal for lab testing, and may replace larger animals such as rabbits and mice that we perceive to experience pain most akin to human suffering.
Living in a world increasingly dominated by a switch to computerised systems, virtual models of disease progression are in constant development to predict the effects of drugs. This may be achieved by quantitative structure-activity relationships (QSARs) which are computer-based techniques that can estimate the toxicity of a substance based on similarity to already known substances and our existing knowledge of human biology.
It sounds simple, but small trials on human patients are vital for assessing the effect of drugs before they are made available to the wider population. Crucially, these tests can be used to eliminate drug compounds that are ineffective on humans before needless testing on animals.
Dissecting animals to understand human systems has been a part of education for decades. Now, human simulators which can breathe, talk and even bleed are being introduced to teach physiology in US medical schools which may pave the way for a future without needless animal exploitation.
This one sounds very futuristic. But human cells grown on chips to replicate human physiology, diseases and drug responses are becoming a reality and may have applications in a number of scientific fields. Another bonus is that they are more accurate than animal responses, so may solve not only a major ethical debate, but also issues on whether or not findings from animal studies can be generalised to humans.
There is a huge spectrum where people stand on the issue of animal testing. Some people think it is acceptable to test on animals for medical purposes, but not cosmetic. But what about using animals for food, as pets or in sport? There is not one easy answer.
Animal testing undoubtedly has its benefits, but it also has an array of ethical drawbacks.
Regardless of the long-term benefit to humankind of animal research, the fact that animals do not have a voice in the human world is something we should consider when assuming they are ours to test upon.