Every year millions of animals are used in scientific research across the UK. Statistics suggest that nearly four million scientific procedures were performed on animals in 2016 alone. The majority of these involved mice (73%), followed by fish (14%), rats (6% ) and birds (4%). The remaining proportion was made up of other species including horses and other equids (0.23%), dogs (0.13%), primates (0.09%) and cats (0.004%).
These numbers make most of us uncomfortable. While many understand and accept (perhaps grudgingly) that animal research is necessary to tackle the major health, environmental and economic issues of our time, the fact that so many animals are used to advance these causes may sound counter-progressive and cruel.
Yet, we cannot ignore the reality that this research is ongoing and is of tremendous benefit to human beings and other species. It is therefore important to consider the facts.
A closer look at these numbers reveals several things. First, they only include non-human vertebrates – animals with backbones – and cephalopods, such as octopus or squid. These animals are said to be capable of experiencing pain, suffering, distress and lasting damage. As a result, they are covered by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA), the UK legislation for the regulation of animal research.
However, billions of invertebrates – animals without backbones such as insects, worms, crustaceans and molluscs – are used each year for research on a range of topics such as genetics, health and food safety. . Historically, invertebrate species were thought to have less developed sensory systems and were thought to be less likely to experience pain; for this reason, they are not covered by ASPA legislation.
As our understanding of the physiology and behavior of these “less sentient” creatures improves, this seemingly arbitrary division of protection between dorsal and non-dorsal (with the exception of cephalopods) has begun to deteriorate. blur. Recent evidence suggests that some invertebrates may well have the ability to sense pain and distress, so there may be a case for including ASPA.
The majority of research animals covered by ASPA are used in genetic research. In 2016, for example, around 50% of all animals (mostly mice) were used to create genetically modified animals.
A large portion of these creatures – 37% in 2016 – have also been used in basic research to improve health and save various species, and applied research like the development of antibiotics and vaccines.
One contentious area is “regulatory testing” which covers the use of animals to test chemicals to determine risks to humans. It should be noted that this does not include cosmetic testing, which has been banned in the UK since 1998. Although a relatively smaller percentage (around 14% in 2016) compared to other uses, this is still a miserable lot. for several hundred thousand animals.
While uncomfortable to discuss, the severity of the procedures is also worth considering. Referring to the level of discomfort, pain and suffering an animal will experience, it is ranked in order of increasing severity: below threshold; Benign; moderate; strict; and non-healing (death). In 2014, approximately 6% of ASPA-regulated animal procedures were deemed serious.
The unease felt by much of the public with the use of animals for research extends to the research community. Many researchers feel strongly in conflict with the use of animals to support their research, especially those whose goal is ultimately to preserve and protect animals.
This ethical dilemma can motivate a researcher to ensure that research is conducted in a highly humane and responsible manner. It can also ensure strong substantiation and a high degree of experimental rigor so that the results are meaningful and valid.
Maintaining animal welfare is also a big plus for researchers. For example, when animals are sick or uncomfortable, the results will be very imperfect. Animal research can be an expensive activity, so the lack of humane conditions can also lead to significant financial losses. Finally, there are major legal implications to consider. Anyone who fails to comply with the regulations faces penalties ranging from the loss of research licenses to imprisonment.
The ASPA regulatory office (i.e. the UK Home Office) and the research community do not take animal use lightly, and important conditions must be met. First, all research on ASPA-regulated animals cannot be conducted without the permission of the Home Office of the institute, the research project and the researcher concerned.
The Home Office also requires organizations conducting animal research to have a full and dedicated team of people (including their own veterinarian) who oversee all research procedures and personnel. All institutes conducting animal research should also have an Animal Welfare and Ethics Review Body (AWERB) which provides advice on all aspects of animal welfare. An AWERB also provides ethical review of all research projects and protocols involving animals (including invertebrates) in any way.
The use of animals in research is by no means ideal and the promotion of ways to reduce this type of research is well underway. The principles of the 3Rs – replacement, reduction and refinement – provide a framework for animal research by which all researchers and their institutions must demonstrate progression. The 3Rs call for animals to be (i) replaced with alternatives such as in vitro models or approaches (eg, testing takes place on cells that are cultured outdoors rather than the whole organism); (ii) in small numbers (when enough animals are used to ensure statistically significant results, but not in excess); and (iii) that experimental procedures are refined to avoid unnecessary suffering.
On a societal level, it is vital that we are not indifferent to the use of animals in research. Instead, we should each aim for a holistic understanding and appreciation of the immense sacrifice that animals provide for the benefit of other life forms on this planet. We owe them that.