What We Need to Talk About Before We Talk About Animal Testing

Design: Carla Emilie Pereira; Animation: Tiago Coelho.

(Disponível em Português)

Animal testing is one of the most contentious topics out there, often forcing science communicators to walk a very tight rope. Can starting a new type of conversation help calm the storm?

It started pretty innocuously. An email from my coordinator popped up in my inbox, asking if I would be available to prepare a piece for the campaign Be Open about Animal Research Day – Get on #BOARD21.

I didn’t think twice. Being a science writer, I often find myself awkwardly dancing around the topic when describing scientific results. So I answered back right away, saying, “Sure, I’ll be happy to do it.” It was only after pressing “send” that I started thinking about exactly what I would write about. It must have been funny to see the sequence of expressions on my face as they transitioned from enthusiasm to doubt, and finally to what can only be described as mild dread. 

Animal testing is a tender topic. Not only for those who are undecided or are decidedly against it, but also for the scientists themselves. So after researching online, talking with people, starting a draft, and then another, I realised that perhaps the best way for me to go about it is by doing something that I never do – write from my own perspective. 

I am an ex-scientist turned science communicator and as such, I know what it means to perform animal research. In fact, one of the reasons I left science was animal experimentation. After witnessing the high level of expertise, immense skill and care demonstrated by the researchers around me, I realised that I just didn’t have the technical abilities to match.

Though I left the lab, I didn’t go too far. For the last decade, I’ve been working at the science communication office at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown (CCU). The CCU houses a cancer clinic side by side with a research programme dedicated to Neuroscience (my original field), Cancer and Physiology. 

Through the years, my appreciation for the skill and care demonstrated by scientists only grew. For instance, can you imagine performing neurosurgery on fruit flies, whose brains are approximately the size of a poppy seed…? But when it came to communicating the fascinating work happening at the CCU, I often came across the same challenges I experienced while working as a researcher. 

Even my family, which was very supportive of my original career choice as a neuroscientist, would sometimes express uneasiness about the fact that I was performing animal testing. At the time, I was confused by their attitude, which seemed self-contradictory. But I realise now that perhaps the reason was that there were other conversations we should have had first. 

There Is Still A Lot For Us To Discover

A common objection to animal testing is that it’s unnecessary. We know so much about how things work, just look at the remarkable technology all around us. Shouldn’t we be able to use our accumulated knowledge to find other means to tackle scientific questions?

I believe this query stems from a common misconception, most likely perpetuated by science communicators, like myself, who often broadcast new findings in a grandiose eye-catching manner. “Scientists discover X” – goes the customary headline (substitute X for “how healthy cells support tumour growth”, or “how the brain measures time”, etc.). By contrast, the multitude of questions that each discovery raises is mentioned in passing, if at all. It is no wonder then that people get the wrong idea about how much we (as in humankind) actually know and how much is still left for us to discover.  

For example, take a pretty standard biomedical inquiry – “What are the mechanisms by which cancer cells evade the immune system?”. A computer model that might be able to provide a realistic answer to this question would require a highly detailed database of how cancer and the immune system work. The level of detail would have to be incredibly extensive. Specifying the identity of all the cells and molecules that make up the different systems and how they interact with each other under normal physiological conditions. 

Unfortunately, such a database does not yet exist and is still a long way off. Scientists are hard at work assembling it, often with the vital help of animal research, adding one piece of information at a time. Ideally, one day, once we have it all figured out, we will be able to answer such questions without animal testing, but we’re not there just yet.

Alternative Methods Are on the Rise

Still, whenever possible, scientists do implement alternative research methods that don’t involve animal testing. This happens in cases where a targeted question can be solved with, for example, cell cultures or computer models. 

Once you start searching around a bit, you quickly realise that the field of alternative methods is booming. One example is the “multi-organ-on-chip models”. With this approach, scientists are attempting to re-create complex physiological dynamics in a dish. In the long run, this technology may even evolve to create “personalised chips” for individual patients that can be used for drug compatibility testing.  

Another exciting example are human-organoids. These are 3D cultures, based on human cells, that re-create the architecture and physiology of human organs. This, in turn, allows the scientists to study various fundamental processes in health and disease. This approach is already being used today and has helped, for instance, shed light on the pathologies caused by the Zika Virus and gain insight into how the blood-brain barrier works.

Our Similarities Are Valuable, But So Are Our Differences 

A doubt many people have about animal testing is whether lessons learned in the mouse, zebrafish or fly can really tell us something meaningful about human physiology. Aren’t we too different?

Well, first of all, this separation is false. Humans are a type of animal and therefore share vast commonalities with them. Many fundamental principles about how our bodies and minds work, from DNA replication to decision-making, exhibit cross-species parallels. There are numerous examples to draw from. Just from the CCU, I can cite two recent studies. In one study, a mechanism initially discovered in fruit flies, which has implications for cancer and ageing, was later demonstrated to exist in humans. Another is a mouse-human study that showed that both species use a similar problem-solving approach when faced with a challenging puzzle.

On the other hand, there is no argument that animals and humans are not identical. But who says that being different is necessarily bad? For instance, understanding why a drug that was effective in mice ended up failing in clinical trials would provide important insight into basic disease mechanisms. Also, just imagine the possibilities if we could figure out how some animals can regenerate organs, or why others don’t get cancer. Our differences may end up holding the key to solving major problems. 

“Basic” Questions Can Reap Significant Benefits

But actually I must admit that I did a bit of cheating earlier. Justifying animal testing is much easier while holding the banner of clinical needs. However, many research projects that involve animal testing don’t have direct medical applications. 

Should we use animals in research for the sake of scientific curiosity alone? 

I imagine that this rather loaded question evokes an instinctive “no way” in many people. After all, it’s not only the animals’ well-being that is in question, but also the financial and human resources that could be used to directly drive medical progress. 

This common objection reflects the under-communication of yet another key aspect of science – the need for fundamental research. Contrary to clinical or translational research, fundamental research explores the basic mechanisms that underlie various biological phenomena without pre-defined practical objectives. 

And though it may seem indulgent, it is in fact necessary to ensure progress. It is precisely because of our lack of knowledge that we cannot predict the long-term outcomes of any particular scientific discovery. There are abundant examples of fundamental research projects that set out to investigate a seemingly inconsequential question that resulted in life-saving applications. 

For instance, the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain was discovered as part of a fundamental research project done in rabbits. Clinical applications quickly followed with the realisation that dopamine dysfunction underlies the symptoms manifested in Parkinson’s and Huntington’s Disease, leading later on to the development of the drug l-DOPA.

Animal Testing Is Highly Regulated to Ensure Humane Treatment of Animals

So given that humanity is not at a stage where it can give up animal testing without a substantial cost, what is the right approach? Can animal testing be done humanely?

To get an idea of how things work, I asked scientists at the CCU (where animal models include fruit flies, zebrafish, mice and rats) about the current animal testing procedures. 

Through these conversations, I’ve learned many facts about the official side of animal testing. Beyond ensuring that animals do not suffer from physical pain or discomfort, much effort is spent ensuring that research animals live well. For instance, to meet the social needs of rats, they are preferentially housed with other rats. Their cages contain enrichment materials, such as plastic tubes to crawl through and nesting materials. And the experimenters routinely spend time with them, even playing with them (if a particular rat has a social disposition), so that they do not experience stress. The weight and behaviour of the animals are closely monitored to catch any signs of decline in health and any issues that are found are promptly addressed by the staff veterinarian.

And there is even more. In addition to caring for the animals, when creating the experimental design, scientists apply the 3Rs of humane animal research: Replacement, Reduction and Refinement. Under these principles, scientists aspire to: (1) find alternatives to animal testing when possible; (2) reduce the number of animals used to a minimum, and; (3) always seek to find ways to elevate the life quality of lab animals. 

Most importantly, at the centre of everything there is official regulation. All experiments performed at the CCU require prior evaluation and approval by the Champalimaud Animal Welfare Body and the Portuguese Directorate-General for Animal Welfare (DGAV). Each project is analysed in great detail, evaluating whether the 3Rs are applied correctly, if there’s a real need for animal testing, how many animals should be used, and how the animals’ welfare will be maintained throughout the project.

Moreover, the course of the project is accompanied by a specialised team that performs constant monitoring of animals, ensuring that all handling and procedures are performed according to suitable and humane techniques following European, National, and institutional guidelines.

Finally, all those involved in the care and use of animals for scientific purposes receive education and training according to the Common European Education and Training Framework. This training includes theoretical and practical sessions that conclude with a formal evaluation. Only individuals that successfully pass the test and gain DGAV accreditation can engage in animal research. 

It’s a Process

And this is where perspective comes in. Amazingly, the 3Rs for the Humane Treatment of Animals, were formulated in the 1950s, soon after the second world war. This means that in less than 100 years, our society has evolved to one that creates special rules for animal testing and constantly strives to do better. 

As the practice of humane treatment of research animals continues to improve, communication is following suit. Openness and transparency about animal testing are now promoted by organisations such as the European Animal Research Association (EARA), which work tirelessly to promote an open discussion about the topic. Another great example is the European Commission, which has recently published a public online database that provides actual numbers about animal experimentation in the EU.

Let’s talk about it

These ruminations highlight a few of a long list of under-exposed and under-discussed topics that, even though not directly related to animal research, are crucial for understanding the need for it. We cannot expect to recruit support for animal testing if we don’t make an effort to communicate how science works and the type of challenges it faces. 

I can imagine various reasons why these topics are usually left aside. For one, we live in a high-pace society that expects speed, certainty and success. But science works under different rules. Science is by definition “the pursuit of the unknown” and therefore none of these expectations is guaranteed. But instead of highlighting this fact, we effectively create a “business-like” façade, where the path from hypothesis to results follows a straight line, which in reality is very rarely the case. 

I personally find it remarkable that when faced with uncertainty on one hand and the immensity of the challenge on the other, scientists don’t become paralysed. Instead, their curiosity keeps driving them forward. My goal is to find a way to share this enthusiasm with the public with the hope that they will whole-hearteadly join in for the ride. 
Starting on this path, we, at the CCU, have recently launched an online collection of science stories accompanied by animated illustrations, named “Inside the Unknown”. Each piece recounts a scientific research project, but instead of ending with a final point, the last item is always the project’s “current status”. In this manner, we try to communicate that science is always in motion and that every answer raises a new question. We plan to continue on this path with this and other initiatives that will hopefully promote a new type of conversation between science and society. 


With thanks to Isabel Campos, Catarina Ramos, John Lee, Hedi Young, Teresa Fernandes and Susana Lima for their feedback and advice.

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