Although animals are an essential part of biomedical research, you may have some questions about which animals are involved, the roles they play, and the care they receive.
Here we answer some common questions. If you don’t find the answer to your question, please email it to us.
1. How do we learn from biomedical research using animals?
Each species in the animal kingdom is unique, but there are similarities as well as differences between species. Researchers usually study animal models that are biologically similar to humans, although they also look at differences. This approach is called comparative medicine.
Pigs and humans have similar skin and cardiovascular systems. By studying pigs, researchers can learn more about skin conditions and heart problems and find better ways to treat them.
Organisms that look very different can be very similar genetically.
The differences between species can also provide great insights. Sharks rarely get cancer, cockroaches can regenerate damaged nerves, some amphibians can regrow lost limbs, and zebrafish can regenerate damaged heart muscle. By studying these animals we may learn how their bodies accomplish these remarkable feats and then apply the same principles to human medicine.
Organisms that look very different can be very similar genetically. To study genetic disorders such as Down Syndrome or Parkinson’s Disease, researchers might study a mouse model which shares 94% of its DNA with humans. Zebrafish have 75 – 80% of the same DNA as humans, and even bananas share 50%. (Each of these estimates is based on certain assumptions so they may vary depending on how the calculation was made.)
2. Who cares for animals in research?
An important but little-known fact about biomedical research is that in addition to the scientists who conduct the research, every research institution also has veterinarians, husbandry specialists and animal care technicians. These are dedicated professionals whose job is to ensure that laboratory animals receive the highest quality of care. They also work together to minimize discomfort or distress because these affect not only the well-being of animals, but also the reliability of the research itself.
Most research animals do not experience procedures that are any more invasive than what most people face during an annual physical examination. When potentially uncomfortable procedures are involved, anesthetics and analgesics are used to relieve discomfort.
Regulatory laws and guidelines, such as those listed in the U.S. Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which excludes rats, mice and birds, and in the Public Health Service (PHS) Policy, which covers all vertebrate animals in federally-funded research, mandate high-quality nutrition, housing and veterinary care for research animals.
Research institutions are required to have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). IACUCs approve and review research protocols, ensure that anesthesia and postoperative medications are used when appropriate, and that alternatives to animals are sought out and integrated into studies whenever possible.
Most institutions go above and beyond regulatory requirements by volunteering to have their programs reviewed every three years by AAALAC International. This accreditation process is very stringent and institutions with AAALAC accreditation are known for their commitment to excellence and humane animal care.
3. How do laboratory animal science professionals feel about their work?
Laboratory animal science professionals know that animal-based research leads to treatments and cures for both people and animals. They are very passionate about their work. By caring for and working with animals in research, they provide hope for you and your loved ones, including your pets.
It’s estimated that rodents and fish comprise well over 95% of all animals used in research.
4. What happens to the animals?
Some research questions can only be answered by harvesting the organ or tissue of interest and examining it at the microscopic and molecular level and animals must be euthanized for this reason. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Guidelines on Euthanasia ensure that euthanasia is performed humanely. Several research institutions have adoption programs for animals in studies that do not require euthanasia.
5. Why are there increasing numbers of mice, rats and fish used in research?
It’s estimated that rodents and fish comprise well over 95% of all animals used in research. The number of mice, rats and zebrafish involved due to the ongoing development of genetic research tools. These methods allow researchers to modify the genome in animals to model common diseases in order to study potential cures.
For example, scientists have been able to insert the human genes responsible for a type of Alzheimer’s disease into rodents, resulting in the rodents developing the cognitive dysfunction and memory loss that people experience.
6. Why can’t alternatives like computers replace research animals?
In many cases they have, but while computers provide terrific resources for researchers all over the world, they do have limitations. For instance, computers are only able to provide information or models of known phenomena. Because research consistently seeks answers to unknowns, a computer is unable to simulate how a particular cell might interact or react with a medical compound, or how a complex biological system such as the circulatory system will react to a new drug directed to improve organ function.
A single living cell is many times more complex than even the most sophisticated computer program. There are an estimated 50 -100 trillion cells in the human body, all of which communicate and interact using a complicated biochemical language – a language researchers have only just begun to learn. Studies using isolated cells or tissues almost always precede animal-based research, but researchers must study whole living systems to understand the effectiveness of treatments and, their potential benefits and dangers.
U.S. law requires that all new drugs, medical devices and procedures first be evaluated in animals for safety and efficacy before clinical (human) trials can begin.
7. What is our moral obligation?
Pain and suffering matter whether experienced by animals or humans. Researchers seek to relieve suffering in both humans and animals by enhancing our ability to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease. They use many different approaches, including computers modeling, cellular and molecular studies, tissue cultures, gene sequencing, epidemiology, and whole animals. Animal studies are but one building block in our research efforts, but they are a vital one.
Not only humans, but also animals – pets, livestock and wildlife – benefit from animal-based research. Discoveries such as antibiotics, anesthetics, surgical techniques, and diagnostic imaging were developed through animal studies and have also enhanced the lives of other animals by improving veterinary care.
When answering a research question requires animal studies, laboratory animal care professionals seek to minimize the pain and distress of their charges by providing them with clean, enriched environments, proper nutrition, and specialized veterinary care.
It also is worth noting that discoveries such as antibiotics, anesthetics, surgical techniques, and diagnostic imaging developed through animal studies and have improved the lives of other animals by improving veterinary care.
8. Are researchers in it for the money?
Doctors, scientists and laboratory animal care professionals are involved in research because they recognize the limitations in our current ability to prevent, diagnose, and cure disease in humans and animals. Biomedical research is a noble profession. Many in the field could make more money following other career paths.
Animal-based research is extremely expensive and it requires a tremendous investment in well-trained people and special facilities. It is also heavily regulated: an institution must spend a significant amount of time and money to ensure that all applicable regulations and guidelines are met. Conducting animal-based research is not something that institutions undertake without a great deal of deliberation and preparation.
9. Why are animals needed to screen consumer products for safety when products tested by alternative methods, (so-called ‘cruelty free’ items), are available?
The law requires that all new chemical compounds be screened for safety using a living system.
It is important to understand what “cruelty free” labels really mean. By definition anyone can use “cruelty free” labels if:
- As the distributing manufacturer they have not directly evaluated the product in animals.
A company can still use the “cruelty-free” label if they send their product to another company for screening in animals.
- Some (but not all) components of the product have been screened with animals. In some cases, products that have been previously evaluated and found safe may be used by other companies and marketed as “cruelty free.” For example, if compound A was safe for animals and compound B was also safe, companies can combine compound A and B into compound C and, without further screening with animals, sell it labeled as “cruelty free” and “not tested on animals.”
10. How can we be sure lost or stolen pets are not used in research?
Pets do become lost and some may never be found but that does not mean that they end up in research laboratories. It is illegal to steal pets for research. In fact. the Animal Welfare Act, first passed in 1966, specifically states that it be enacted “in order to protect the owners of dogs and cats from theft of such pets.” Over 99% of the animals used in today’s research are “purpose bred” (i.e., bred specifically for research purposes). Those not specifically created for research come from licensed Class B animal dealers that are regulated and inspected by the USDA.
FOR MORE ANIMAL RESEARCH FAQs, VISIT:
American Physiological Society
Foundation for Biomedical Research
Pennsylvania Society for Biomedical Research
New Jersey Association for Biomedical Research
North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research