Many benefits gained from animal research

Very often in the popular media, we hear about a new scientific breakthrough that will save or improve the lives of people with a crippling or painful disease. What is often not reported or emphasized is that the knowledge at the heart of these discoveries depended on the use of animals in research.
The largest and most obvious benefit of animals is their use in the experiments that answer critical questions about the biology underlying human and animal disorders. A less direct, less noticed benefit comes by way of the enormous wealth of information from past and present research that guides these and future experiments. This information is also crucial to the design of clinical trials and therapies. Whether directly or indirectly, animals in research remain essential to our continued understanding of the physiology and biochemistry that are the basis of all life.
The reason animal contributions are not readily reported became apparent last week on campus: Such information leads to the targeting of individual researchers. When put to use by certain organizations, this information can be used in a distorted way that spurs people to destruction and violence. A reasonable look at the whole story, however, will reveal the hypocrisy of reaping the benefits of animal research without acknowledging their source.
More importantly, the immediate end of all animal research would mean the end of meaningful biomedical progress, as well as the waste of the information collected from animal research in the past.
The broad range of benefits is apparent in everyday life. Whenever you go to the doctor, take ibuprofen or have the bad luck to need treatment at a hospital, you benefit from animal research. In addition, the discovery of vitamins and minerals, the dietary benefits of certain substances, as well as the application of this information to preventative strategies also relies on animal research. Our understanding of the health impact of pesticides, toxins and industrial processes are founded on animal research. Animal testing-based information has been a valuable tool used to determine acceptable levels for environmental toxins.
Cell culture and computer replacement: a viable option?
Due to what we’ve learned through animal research, scientists have been able to develop cell culture and computer modeling techniques, (which are subsequently validated only by comparison to the whole animal they are modeled after). These new techniques have expanded greatly in recent times. Because these reduction techniques have been possible, animal rights activists have led the public to believe that the use of animals can be eliminated altogether. In truth, computer modeling and cell culture are currently nowhere near the complexity of a biological system. Perhaps someday they will be. But the success of that effort continues, at this point in time, to depend on the increase in understanding gained through animal research.
Distortion of facts
Many of the pieces of information used last week, distorted or otherwise, have been instances of exceptions used to prove the rule. One claim is that researchers are doing animal experiments to get rich on more grant money. However, the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s largest source of support for biomedical research, is able to fund only about one-third of all research proposals that have been judged scientifically worthy. This process minimizes the possibility that laboratory animals will be used for trivial purposes.
Another claim is that since we don’t have a cure for cancer, heart disease, or AIDS, animal research must not be working. However, 30 years ago, a heart attack at 50 years of age was nearly always fatal, and only 20 percent of cancer patients survived more than five years after treatment. Today, similar patients not only live longer, but also have a greater quality of life, thanks to animal research and testing of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and specially targeted drugs.
The “unethical” researchers
What might not have been outlined last week are the enormous volumes of regulations for animal use in research set out by the Animal Welfare Act and the organizations that monitor them, not only on paper, but with unannounced lab visits. These regulations include standards for housing, feeding, cleanliness, ventilation and veterinary care. Importantly, this law also requires the use of anesthesia for potentially painful procedures and analgesics for post-operative care.
It is not in the interest of researchers to ignore these regulations, even if they do not exist as legal entities. The best experiment is one that has healthy, unstressed animals. Legal or practical considerations aside, we have never met a scientist with malicious intent towards animals in graduate training. On the contrary, many scientists have encouraged reservations about using animals, as well as creativity within experiments to reduce the numbers used. In addition, many other people within the system are promoting training at the University that goes above and beyond current regulations to improve the welfare of research animals still further.
Graduate students Kristin Schreiber and Paul Wacnik are representatives of the student organization Focus on Animal Contributions To Science