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Laboratory animals in science


Expert Pharmacologist
Jul 6, 2021
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Why can't science do without laboratory animals?

Many people give up meat and fur coats, but don't think about how their medicine or facial cream is produced. Meanwhile, almost everything we put on our bodies, take internally, and use for cleaning is tested on animals. Is such research a barbaric practice or a necessary evil?

I'll tell you why animal testing is ethically controversial, but still being done, and what alternatives are available.

In 1947, the Nuremberg Code (the international document that regulates the principles of medical experiments on people) enshrined such a provision:

«The experiment should be based on data obtained in laboratory studies on animals, knowledge of the history of the disease in question or other problems being studied».

The quality of life of people all over the world has become much better - and we owe this to advances in medicine, pharmacology, and cosmetology. Before a new substance is tested on humans, its effectiveness and safety are always tested on animals.


However, the use of living beings in scientific and medical experiments has been the subject of heated debate around the world for many years. Its opponents believe that all life is valuable and should be treated with respect, and that experiments on animals are cruel and unnecessary regardless of their usefulness and ultimate purpose. Activists demand an immediate and complete cessation of all such research. Is this possible?

What do they do to animals in laboratories?
Approximately 65% of experimental animals are used to gain applied biomedical knowledge, particularly pharmaceutical knowledge. They help to elucidate:
  • The normal and pathological course of various processes in the body,
  • The degree of toxicity of a substance,
  • The potential harmlessness/dangerousness of drugs being developed.
Approximately 1% of laboratory animals become teaching aids for future physicians or biologists. The rest are needed for fundamental knowledge.

Animals taken from the wild may not be used in biomedical experiments.


What is humane science?
In 1959, zoologist William Russell and microbiologist Rex Birch published Principles of Humane Experimental Technique on the ethical aspects of animal research. They argued that all animal experiments should include, as far as possible, the three components-the three R’s:
  • Replace — replacing conscious, living vertebrates with unintelligent alternatives.
  • Reduce — reduce the number of experiments using animals.
  • Refine — an improvement in methodology that should minimize the frequency or severity of suffering of experimental animals.
The «Three R's Rule» is widely accepted by the international scientific community. Almost everyone who uses animals in their experiments says they agree with the principle, and substitution should occur wherever possible. Many of those who oppose the use of animals in scientific procedures also agree with the principle - but are concerned that these rules are not always followed in practice.


How are animal studies regulated?
Many scientists believe that the current level of biomedicine makes it impossible to stop using animals in laboratories. A 2010 European Union directive calls for the use of alternative research methods wherever possible. From a bioethical point of view, it is highly desirable to abandon experiments in which harm is done to living beings.

Worldwide, more than 115 million animals suffer and die in experiments. As of 2021, about 70 million animals a year are involved in experiments in the United States and the European Union (of which 80% are rats and mice). This is three times less than in the 1970s, but in the last 10 years the decline has halted.

In the various countries where such research is conducted, there are different and highly contradictory rules that vivariums, places where laboratory animals are kept, must follow. There is still no law in some countries that defines the rules for the humane treatment of animals for scientific and research purposes, not just in the home.

What do scientists and animal advocates think of animal experiments?
«I believe that the use of animals for scientific purposes is inevitable.
This ranges from teaching students how to dissect and operate to drug trials and experimental operations such as organ transplants. All of this is done on experimental animals. Hardly anyone would think of performing such manipulations on living human beings.
This is not a question of «liking» or «disliking», but of whether there are other options. If there aren't, we have to use animals»

— Cas Aarden, PhD - Organic Chemist, University of Groningen.

Almost all living creatures have pain syndrome, except the naked mole rat. Therefore, if possible, all surgeries are performed with anesthesia.

We don't know enough about what goes on in the brains of animals to apply the term "realize. Humans, when they go in for surgery, understand all the risks involved, but animals at this level cannot perceive anything.

There are many publications about animals being taken to the slaughterhouse being anxious, worried, and their hormone levels changing. There are a lot of speculations based on this, leading to the superhumanization of animals by attributing to them feelings and sensations like those of humans.

From my point of view, this should not be done categorically, it is necessary to draw a clear line.


Unregulated clandestine laboratories aside, they haven't been slaughtering animals alive for a long time. In good laboratory practice and quality scientific research, employees are aware of what they are doing and comply with modern requirements for humane handling of animals.

In bioethical laboratories, mice and rats live in spacious cages appropriate to their species, with everything they need. The animals are not disturbed unnecessarily, their health is monitored, and they are kept in cages in adequate numbers.

Alternatives to the use of animals exist and new ones are being actively developed, but it is simply impossible to replace all of them. Because of the huge variety of experimental techniques, it is possible to reduce the number of animals in laboratories mainly through the standardization of studies, a mandatory thorough literature review. This will help to avoid repetition of experiments that have already been performed.


Unfortunately, at this point in science and medicine, the use of animals cannot be completely ruled out. For example, it is necessary in studies that show how a substance is distributed through the body and excreted. However, it is possible to conduct preliminary experiments using mathematical models of distribution and reduce the number of animals in the experiment.

Another example is research on substances for embryotoxicity. The story of thalidomide, a sleeping pill that was thought to be safe and prescribed to pregnant women in the mid-20th century, is a sad one. As a result, many children worldwide were born with severe pathologies.

Prior to that, there had been almost no clinical trials of the drug. Given this mistake, animal testing has now been made a requirement.

When developing new drugs, there is a condition: experiments on different species, such as rats and highly evolved mammals like dogs or primates. Such research is very strictly regulated, and few organizations can afford to organize it properly.


Scientists are also making experiments more accurate with better equipment. Good inhalation equipment and anesthesia are now used for euthanasia.

The most humane methods are anesthesia overdose for large animals and decapitation for small animals: in this way the brain is almost instantly cut off from the spinal cord, where the pain receptors are located.

Whenever possible, scientists conduct experiments on low-organized species. Their nervous systems are simpler, so they are less affected. For example, mice have a more developed nervous system than fish.

If it were possible to conduct experiments on the effects of toxic substances only on bacteria, that would be great. But the more complex the system, the more factors will influence the result. For example, a certain dose of a substance would be toxic to bacteria, but it would have no effect on mice, and vice versa.

Another alternative is to experiment not on the animals themselves, but on parts of their bodies.


Many consider the Dreis test, in which live rabbits were used, to be incredibly cruel. Shampoos, nail polish, and decorative cosmetics were dripped into the immobilized animals' eyes.

As bioethical principles have evolved, many approaches have been revised, and now rabbits are euthanized and tested only on isolated eyes. This way the animal does not suffer for long.

Now there are new developments, such as synthetic corneas. The more advanced the technology, the more accurate and close to reality the result will be.

Another cool example is artificial skin. However, it's more expensive because it's not the most common technology, but one patented by a single developer. Not all companies can afford it - and resort to the old methods.

Alternatives can be introduced in toxicological research.

Now a huge number of animals are used in toxicology. Everything that in one way or another comes into contact with humans, skin, and is in our homes is tested on animals: cleaning products, detergents, household chemicals, cosmetics, medications.


Those who oppose the use of animals in scientific experiments make these arguments.
  • Animal experimentation is a closed area, so there's a lot we just don't know about. When someone kills someone behind closed doors, it's creepy.
  • For some reason, people have decided that they are more important than anyone else on earth and that only their lives matter and the lives of everyone else do not; that they can take the life of any animal they want, and they do it in their own interest.
If a person gets cancer and is offered an effective treatment, but hundreds of mice die, will he agree to it? With a high degree of probability, yes.

Animals are not used for fun or to satisfy the ambitions of mad scientists. It is the solution of fundamental questions of science and the development of new medicines. Animals are being killed in the interest not of one man, but of all mankind.

At this point in the study of any new drug, animal experimentation cannot be completely abandoned. Preclinical studies became mandatory in connection with the thalidomide tragedy and made it possible to rule out the recurrence of such outbreaks.

A significant step toward minimizing suffering has been made through in silico (computer simulation) and in vitro studies.

We can reduce the amount of research on animals and limit the degree of intervention. Instead of using 100 individuals, use 10. Instead of killing, dissecting, and examining the cadaver at the end of the experiment, draw conclusions about the condition of the living individual.

Modern computer and in vitro modeling methods allow us to predict the properties of a new molecule and weed out obviously toxic substances. But a living organism is a multicomponent system, and the final result is influenced by many factors.

It is difficult to extrapolate data from animals to humans, and even more so from computer models.

It is always scary to introduce a completely new molecule to humans for the first time. And the bigger the safety evidence base is, the more confident everyone involved will be.

Of course, it is difficult to completely abandon laboratory animals. It is only possible to control and limit such research on the animal types closest to humans.

Modern technology can reduce the number of laboratory organisms in medical trials:
  • Research on new cell lines and tissues
  • Application of new model organisms
  • Development of bioprinting systems
  • Computer and combined simulations
Such modern computational methods will gradually speed up and improve the process of finding the active agents.

The key difficulty is in the calculations: modern computing power does not yet allow to recreate all the processes occurring even in a single cell.


It is now impossible to abandon animal research in medicine, toxicology, immunology, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, genetics, and other fields of science serving the specific needs of the economy.

Such fields are not guided by questions of humanity, so at best, laboratory tests can be more closely controlled.

A characteristic case of violations of the rules of experimentation with animals in astronautics was the Israeli expedition SpaceIL 2019. At that time, tiny invertebrates - silent walkers capable of surviving without oxygen and heat - were brought to the surface of the Moon.

Many scientists are forced to work with available laboratory organisms due to a lack of real alternatives, making crude approximations and incurring enormous costs. This also happens during clinical trials of drugs, for which research on laboratory animals is a mandatory step.

The psychological aspect is also important. Most people have empathy and pity for anthropomorphic organisms and mammals used in laboratories. Therefore, they initially try to choose cell cultures or insects as research subjects - but this is not always possible.

In this case, the best thing to do is to follow ethical protocol in conducting experiments.


Attitudes toward laboratory animals can say a great deal about a person, about the meaningfulness of being in the profession. Real and honest scientists are aware of and often discuss the problem of using animals in research, condemning experimenters who use excessive numbers of organisms, and so on.

Unfortunately, many members of the scientific community treat eco-activists as dilettantes, unable to reason coherently.

And high-profile stories like the release of lab animals or Greta Thunberg's speeches only lower the credibility of the discussion - and therefore do not bring the solution to real problems any closer.

Write your opinion in the comments, what do you think, do you think saved human lives are worth animal lives?

If so, which ones, and in what proportion?


Don't buy from me
Mar 27, 2022
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At this point in the study of any new drug, animal experimentation cannot be completely abandoned. Preclinical studies became mandatory in connection with the thalidomide tragedy and made it possible to rule out the recurrence of such outbreaks.
BrainWhat a nonsense, thalidomide is just an example that animal testing is complete nonsense.
Numerous animal experiments were carried out beforehand and the fact that substances can be transferred via the placenta was already considered proven at that time. So why was it not noticed during the tests? Was it tested? Nobody knows, the files of the animal tests were all destroyed.
And what happened later when the studies were repeated? It was not possible to say with certainty which species should have been chosen to predict the effect in humans. It would have taken countless animal studies, but it would have been a huge mess of data.
Now explain to me the sense of killing animals when you can't draw any conclusions at all?
Today's teratogenicity tests are still based on the erroneous assumption that research results from animal experiments are transferable to humans. The fact alone that nine out of ten new active substances fail in clinical trials because the results from animal tests do not reflect the reactions of the human organism speaks volumes.
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