Recently, a very intelligent non-scientist friend asked me about my views on animal research.
Do I want to talk about animal research? No, definitely not.
Do I think it’s important to have objective, productive discussions about animal research? Absolutely.
So I will override my discomfort on such a polarizing topic and reveal my comprehensive views on animal research.
I do animal research. Everyone in the biomedical research space does it, but no one talks about it.
Did I ever foresee myself killing mice? Definitely not; my reason for pursuing biomedical engineering was to fix animals, which evolved into the desire to help people. Whenever I have to work with mice, I’m emotionally perturbed the day before, the day of, and the day after, to the point where I warn people that I won’t be myself for those three days. I avoid animal experiments as much as possible. Halfway through grad school, I adopted a vegetarian diet to ‘offset my animal footprint.’
So why on earth do I willingly participate in animal research?
Because right now, animal research is the only way to create therapies that will help people. Perhaps most importantly, the FDA requires extensive animal studies before it will consider any new treatment for approval, and FDA approval is mandatory to bring something from the lab to patients. So if you want to make anything that helps people, even if you generate extraordinarily convincing data outside of animals (in vitro), animal testing will inevitably happen if you want your therapy to get to the clinic. (If you want to blame anyone for the necessity of animal research in medicine, blame the government). Many researchers never touch animals, instead focusing on something like optimizing the chemistry of medicinal compounds, but that compound will inevitably be injected into animals before it will be considered for FDA approval.
As much as it pains me to experiment on mice, I would rather be the person handling those mice, knowing that I am being as compassionate as possible in the pursuit of novel therapies, rather than to outsource the animal testing to unknown entities. I would feel irresponsible if I developed something and outsourced animal testing, as I would not be able to ensure that the animals were treated as humanely and painlessly as possible.
Yes, many animal experiments involve giving animals diseases, but rest assured that there are extremely strict guidelines for the amount of pain and discomfort animals are allowed to endure. Yes, it is incredibly presumptuous for us humans to dictate the fate of beings that can’t express themselves in our language. Yes, I may very well come back in another lifetime as a lab rat and receive some epic karma. But I do my best in the current research circumstances to advance medicine while minimizing harm.
It’s comforting that that lab mice likely have better lives than most wild mice, as their food and shelter is taken care of, and their deaths usually occur from anesthesia overdose, which is a much less painful way to die than starvation. Most scientists that I know do not enjoy the process of manipulating animals’ lives, and they go to great lengths to be as gentle and loving as possible.
Whenever I have a crisis of conscience for, say, injecting a mouse with melanoma cells, I would remember what my mother said: when her father was dying of cancer, she would have sacrificed all the mice in the world to save him (or at least minimize his pain). And that’s what we call it: animal sacrifice. While I respect the sanctity of all lives, the hope is that the sacrifices made by mice given diseases and, hopefully, the cures we develop, fewer humans (and animals!) will die of these diseases. We don’t do animal research to abuse animals; we do it to help people.
Rumors abound about comprehensive experimental and computer models that can simulate and replace animal research. My expert opinion is that for complicated diseases, we don’t currently have adequate simulations, and the only way to determine critical parameters of treatments in development, like which cells molecules affect and how, is by experimenting with mice. As we understand so little about physiology, especially the immune system, we are increasing our understanding of these fields through the use of physiological systems like mice.
Could fewer animals be used in research? Absolutely. I am personally extremely conservative in using animals (only doing in vivo experiments when necessary), and I try to only work with morally aligned researchers who similarly use as few animals as possible. I do not frivolously inject animals with random things in the hopes of some effect, but instead I very rigorously and methodically work through in vitro and computer-based experiments before considering animal testing.
However, I wouldn’t take a drug that had been developed in the lab but had never been tested on animals. How would we know how it works? How would we know the dose? How could we plan for unpredictable side effects? Would you take a new drug that had never been tested on animals?
The hope is that one day we will have experimental and computational models robust enough to replace animal testing. I certainly believe that’s possible within our lifetimes, and my current research focuses on developing such models. I’m using mathematical software to make sense of existing data to understand how diseases spread through the body, and the contributions of different immune processes in either controlling the diseases or being overpowered by them. Many, many research groups are performing similar research initiatives, like organs-on-a-chip, and interdisciplinary efforts are being made so that we can taper off of animal testing, which is by far my least favorite part of being a biomedical researcher.
I hope my ground-level insights on animal testing open up balanced, useful conversations that will expedite our ability to abandon animal testing in biomedical research. Please chime in with your thoughts, and I will do my best to address any questions or comments.