Animal welfare, Catheter and mouse

Human first, animal second. It is acceptable to regulate animal experiment for better efficiency, but we should not stop animal experiment because animal suffers, as long as it brings benefits to mankind.

May 7th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Sharing information on failed animal experiments would help both scientists and rats

IN AN ideal world, people would not test medicines on animals. Such experiments are stressful and sometimes painful for animals, and expensive and time-consuming for people. Yet there are vast gaps in medical knowledge which animal experimentation can help close. People have power over animals, so they use animals to help their own species.

Yet the notion that animal suffering is pitted against human welfare—animal pain against human gain—is too stark. After all, it is in scientists’ interests to treat animals well. If laboratory animals are properly looked after, differences in experimental results are more likely to be down to the science than to the guinea-pigs’ health. Sometimes, numbing animals’ pain makes sense, too. Research has shown that giving pain-relieving drugs to animals that are undergoing experimental surgery may enhance the results, by making the animal’s experience more like a person’s. And some changes in the regulation of scientific research, proposed by the European Commission on May 5th, should further reduce animal suffering and at the same time produce better science.
Murine morals

Between 50m and 100m animals are used in research each year around the world, says the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a British think-tank. Europe has the world’s most restrictive laws on animal experiments. Even so its scientists use some 12m animals a year, most of them mice and rats, for medical research. That number has been creeping up, mainly because scientists can now plant foreign genes into creatures so that they better mimic human responses to disease.

At first sight American animal experimentation appears modest by comparison. Official statistics show that just 1.1m animals are used in research each year. But that is misleading. The American authorities do not think mice and rats are worth counting and, as these are the commonest laboratory animals, the true figure is much higher. Japan and China have less comprehensive data even than America. Animals used in research there are not protected as they are in the West. Nevertheless, academic centres promoting alternatives to animal testing have grown up in both places in recent years.

Now Europe is reforming the rules governing animal experiments (see article). At first sight, the law seems like just another piece of European bureaucracy: slow and onerous. Although the proposed directive has just been approved in draft by MEPs, it is still some years from becoming law. But the law has two decent aims: to encourage alternatives to animal testing such as using human tissue or computer models, and to ensure the welfare of laboratory animals.

Replacing animal experiments with alternatives is a good idea on several counts. Animal studies can sometimes be of dubious scientific value, since different species react differently to the same procedure. It is also easier to standardise results if you do not depend on individual animals. Sadly, international agreements on the sale of medical treatments limit the use of alternatives. On April 27th America, Canada, Europe and Japan promised to co-operate on validating alternatives to animal testing. The EU law is another step forward.

But the greatest gain, whether you have four legs or two, should come from the commission’s proposal that scientists who use animals should share data (subject to confidentiality). At present, scientists often share only the results of successful experiments. If their findings do not fit the hypothesis being tested, the work never sees the light of day. This practice condemns others who have the same idea to waste time, money and animals’ lives in duplicating the failed experiment. Some duplication would still occur: repeating experiments that produce positive results to check that they really are as good as they say is necessary. So is replicating negative results to check that they are, indeed, negative. But endlessly rerunning failed experiments helps nobody.

Animal experimentation has taught humanity a great deal and saved countless lives. It needs to continue, even if that means animals sometimes suffer. Europe’s new law should eventually both lessen that pain and improve the way in which science itself is done. Other regulators should copy it.

Leave a Reply