History of animal research
The use of animals in scientific experiments in the UK can be traced back at least as far as the 17th Century with Harvey’s experiments on numerous animal species aiming to demonstrate blood circulation. Across Europe, the use of animals in scientific research began to expand over the 19th Century, in part supported by the development of anaesthetics which had previously made animal research impossible. In 1876, parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act, the first legislation aimed at regulating animal experiments.
Over the late 19th and the 20th centuries, the expansion of medical science meant that the numbers of animals used in research expanded steadily, accelerated by the Medicines Act, 1968, which provided a clearer guide to the use of animals in safety testing in the wake of the Thalidomide tragedy. The number of animals used rose to over 5.5 million in 1970 after which point the numbers began to decline rapidly. This large expansion reflected a growing medical field; animals had played a part in most medical advances of the 20th century including insulin, the polio vaccine, penicillin and the elimination of smallpox. In 1986 the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act was passed, which ensured higher animal welfare standards in laboratories across the UK.
In 2010, EU Directive 2010/63 was passed. This regulation harmonises European animal laboratory standards, improving animal welfare across the EU, and is currently being transposed into the laws of the member countries. It passed into UK law on 1st January 2013.
Animal Research in Medicine: 100 Years of Politics, Protests and Progress (John Illman) provides a history of animal research legislation and the context in which they were developed.
- Illman, J., 2008. Aninmal Research in Medicine: 100 years of Politics, Protests and Progress. The Story of the Research Defence Society. London: Research Defence Society.
A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology (Jim Endersby) tells the story of modern biology through the stories of the animals and plants that made it possible.
- Endersby, J., 2007. A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology. Heinemann.
Medical Advances and Animal Research (RDS & CMP) is an excellent booklet outlining the role of animals in many of the medical developments we see around us. It provides full references to the scientific literature it mentions throughout.
- Research Defence Society & Coalition for Medical Progress, 2007. Medical Advances and Animal Research: The Contribution of Animal Science to the Medical Revolution: Some Case Histories. London: RDS. [online] Available at: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/media-library/download/document/64/
The Animal Research Timeline (AR.info) provides an outline of many of the major medical discoveries since 1881, as well as explaining the role of animals in each of these developments.
- AnimalResearch.Info. Timeline. [online]. Available at: http://www.animalresearch.info/en/medical-advances/timeline/
Animal Research Info: Nobel Prizes (AR.info) provides a breakdown of all the Nobel Prizes in Physiology and Medicine since 1901 and includes how animals were involved in the discoveries.
- AnimalResearch.Info. Nobel Prizes. [online]. Available at: http://www.animalresearch.info/en/medical-advances/nobel-prizes/
The Animals (UAR) provides information about the number and type of animals used in medical research. Look at how the number of animals in research has risen and fallen over time in the Number of Animals section.
- Understanding Animal Research. The Animals. [online]. Available at: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/the-animals/
Pro-Test: Tackling Animal Rights (SR) is an essay following the battle over the building of the Oxford University Biomedical Facility from 2005-2008. It covers the rise of the animal rights group SPEAK, and the student counter-movement, Pro-Test. It also covers some of the issues which helped change public opinion from 2006.
- Speaking of Research, 2008. Pro-Test Tackling Animal Rights in the UK. [online]. Available at: http://speakingofresearch.com/about/the-uk-experience/
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Last edited: 17 March 2015 14:32
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The use of animals in scientific research has long been the subject of heated debate. On the one hand it is considered morally wrong to use animals in this way solely for human benefit.
On the other hand, removing animals completely from the lab would impede our understanding of health and disease, and consequently affect the development of new and vital treatments. Although sometimes these studies do reduce the quality of life of these animals, thorough regulations are in place to ensure that they are carried out in a humane way.
To help minimise the harm animals may experience while being studied in the laboratory, researchers are required to follow a set of principles, the ‘three Rs’. These are:
- Replace: Replacing, where possible, experiments using animals with alternative techniques such as cell culture, computer modelling or human volunteers instead of animals.
- Reduce: Reducing the number of animals used, by improving experimental techniques and sharing information with other researchers so that the same experiments aren’t being done by many people.
- Refine: Refining the way the animals are cared for to help minimise any stress or pain, by using less invasive techniques where possible and improving medical care and living conditions.
Below you can find many of the arguments being made for and against the use of animals in the laboratory, some you are probably already aware of and some you may not have thought about… what do you think?
Are animal models useful?
- Scientists have been able to advance their knowledge of human and animal health and disease dramatically by studying model organisms.
- Antibiotics, insulin, vaccines, organ transplantation and HIV treatment have all been developed with the help of experiments involving animals.
- Research using animals has contributed to 70 per cent of Nobel Prizes for Physiology or Medicine.
- Animals play a small but vital role in medical research that brings hope to many people with conditions such as cancer, heart failure and Alzheimer’s disease.
- No animal model is ever perfect and there are still many differences between model organisms and humans.
- Humans and animals don’t always react in the same way to a drug. The reason that some medicines do not make it to market is that despite passing tests in animals they then fail in humans.
- Some people will say that that animals have not been as critical to medicine as is generally claimed.
Do the positives associated with using animal models outweigh the negatives?
- The use of animals in research is essential for enabling researchers to develop new drugs and treatments.
- The use of animals in the lab has dramatically improved scientists’ understanding of human biology and health.
- Animal models help ensure the effectiveness and safety of new treatments.
- Alternative methods of research do not simulate humans and whole body systems in the same way and are not as reliable.
- Many animals are used for experiments and then killed.
- It is expensive to use model organisms as the animals must be purchased and then fed, housed and cared for.
- Some people will consider using animals in the lab to be immoral.
Are animal experiments necessary?
- Some diseases, such as asthma and cystic fibrosis, involve very complex physiological processes that can only be studied in a whole, living animal. Until there is a cell that can be studied individually and can exhibit human-like responses, animals are necessary.
- Legally, all drugs have to be tested on animals for safety before they can be used in humans.
- Where there are reliable alternatives in scientific research, animals are not used. There must always be a very clear scientific reason for research on animals to be considered.
- Through testing on animals we are able to ensure any risks of a drug are identified and minimised before it is tested on humans during clinical trials. This helps to reduce side effects and human fatalities.
- There is no need to cause pain and suffering to animals when sophisticated computer systems, mathematical models, human tissue and cell cultures and more focused clinical studies can also show us what happens to our bodies during disease.
Is it ethical to use animals in research?
- The UK has gone further than any other country to implement thorough ethical frameworks when it comes to animals in research. The Animals Act of 1986 ensures that any research using animals must be fully assessed in terms of any harm to the animals. This involves detailed examination of the procedures and the number and type of animals used.
- The use of animals in research is never undertaken lightly. Researchers working with animals carry out their experiments with extreme care to eliminate or minimise suffering.
- Whenever possible painkillers and anaesthetics are used to manage pain , in the same way it is when an animal visits a vet.
- To stop animal research would also be unethical as it would dramatically affect the development of new knowledge and flow of treatments to those with health conditions who desperately need them.
- The alternative to using animals in the lab would be to test new drugs in humans. It would be very difficult for researchers to find willing volunteers who would be able to provide informed consent to been involved in testing a new drug that hadn’t first been tested on animals.
- Far fewer animals are used in scientific research than are killed for humans to eat. It has been estimated that 2.5 billion animals are consumed in the UK each year. This is around 700 times more animals than the number used in scientific research.
- Over 4 million animal procedures are currently carried out each year for UK biomedical research.
- Animals feel pain and fear just as we do.
- If we accept that animals have rights then if an experiment violates the rights of an animal, it is morally wrong and any possible benefits to humanity are completely irrelevant.
- Certain harm versus potential harm. The harm done to human beings by not experimenting on animals is unknown, whereas the harm done to animals if they are tested on is certain.
Should the use of animals in research be a mandatory part of modern progressive science?
- Currently animal testing is a compulsory, legal part of drug testing.
- Animal studies are always used alongside other types of research such as cell cultures, computer modelling and human clinical trials.
- Using animals in research has long been a crucial part of science and has enabled our understanding of how we function to progress in leaps and bounds.
- Eventually, it should be optional to use animals in drug testing.
- More funding should be put into developing alternatives to experiments using animals.
- Just because we undertake animal testing now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge how scientific research is done in the future.
This page was last updated on 2017-03-03