The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Controversy: Animal testing

This week, Senior Science & Technology Reporter, Serena Holloway, tackles the ongoing debate on animal testing in pharmaceutical development


The use of animals in science can be traced back as far as the Ancient Greeks. Since then, huge advancements in science and medicine have been made — something that many scientists argue wouldn’t have been possible without animal testing. As a neuroscientist, I agree.

Despite this, the morality of animal testing has been debated since the 17th century, and in more recent years, animal rights groups have placed the practice under severe criticism, with convincing arguments. But if so many people are unhappy about it, why does scientific research continue to use animal testing on such a large-scale?

A significant amount of the knowledge we have today on the human body’s anatomy and functions can be traced back to animal research. It is a vital part of understanding what happens in a whole, living body. A lot of research can be conducted on cells grown in a laboratory, or on organ and tissue donations, and for most experiments, this is the case. However, certain areas of research are only truly successful when studying a complete, living organism. A prime example of one such organism is the giant squid, from which the basics of the human nervous system were learnt.

But why should humans use animals in this way simply to advance their scientific knowledge?

Well, the knowledge gained from animal research forms a vital foundation in understanding human disease. Many animals experience diseases also found in humans; dogs suffer with cancer, diabetes ,and cataracts; rabbits experience atherosclerosis (hardened arteries) and birth defects such as spina bifida.

In using these animals as models of human disease, researchers can explore potential treatments for these conditions. Animal research has enabled us to invent treatments for cancer, eradicate smallpox, and polio, and to produce antibiotics for infections and insulin for diabetics.

There is no doubt that animal testing has improved human medicine. Yet because of this, animal rights activists argue that animals are tested upon selfishly for human benefit, but animal testing does not just benefit humans alone. Animal research has helped produced vaccines for rabies, tetanus, parvo virus, and a multitude of other illnesses in cats, dogs, and other domesticated animals. It can be argued that animal research has improved the health of all living species.

Within pharmaceutical companies, animal testing is viewed as the ‘gold standard’ when investigating the safety of potential new drugs in humans. Asthma, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, depression, and angina are all currently treated by drugs that have successfully passed safety tests conducted in animals. Paracetamol, the ‘go-to’ painkiller, for example, was tested on cats, dogs, hamsters, mice, pigs, primates, rabbits, rats, and zebrafish during its development.

But is this form of extensive testing necessary?

Activists argue there are many alternatives that can replace animal testing all together. For example, computer models are now being used to replicate aspects of the human body by conducting virtual experiments based on scientific data. The alternative use of stem cells has also increased — albeit with its own ethical issues — and innovative devices using human cells called ‘organs-on-chips’ are now being used instead of animal organs.

Scientists are greatly encouraged to ‘replace’ animal testing with these alternatives wherever possible in their experiments, as part of a set of principles known as the Three R’s: Reduction (use the minimum number of animals), Refinement (reduce their suffering) and Replacement (use alternatives). In fact, British law dictates that animal testing should only be used if a suitable alternative does not exist.

In my opinion, total elimination of animal testing would halt both medical and scientific progress. The advancements made in these areas so far would not have been made without the use of animal research. As long as the Three R’s are continually and effectively employed by scientists worldwide, I believe that the morality of animal testing in science cannot be questioned, especially when producing so many benefits to all species.

  • bigdog

    I see. So if terminal experiments on babies, mentally challenged, imprisoned, or otherwise helpless beings might lead to something worthwhile, let’s do it. We have laws to protect the defenseless, and none are more defenseless than the sentient creatures we torture and kill for our own selfish reasons. This is not to say I agree with your premise that animal experimentation is essential to advancement; I do not agree. But your argument is self-serving.

    • Maggie442

      That’s a logical fallacy mixed up with a false equivalency. Let’s take a real-life example. Breast cancer drug Herceptin was based on a mouse antibody. You clearly cannot have got it without a mouse. It can be used to treat around 10,000 newly diagnosed women in the UK each year. The suffering endured by the mouse whilst giving the original antibody will have been of the order of a blood draw followed by humane euthanasia. Now compare it again to the suffering of tens of thousands of women with breast cancer, their families, dependants, partners, colleagues. The woman with breast cancer might well fear for her children’s wellbeing, whereas mice eat their children with little provocation. That’s your moral equivalence.

      Modern animal research not be done on babies, mentally challenged etc. why? Most of it is breeding experiments to investigate gene function and your candidates have already been born. Also, the subjects you cite are dirty – lab animals are kept pathogen free so pathogens do not affect experiments.

      So, your conception of what research involves is all wrong, your ‘torture’ is a blood draw, you are indifferent to the suffering of higher primates like women with breast cancer, you hold ignorant views of medical/veterinary history and you think mice have moral equivalence to humans despite their lacking anything like equivalent cognitive function, moral sense, capacity for civic reciprocity or good reason not to eat their own children alive. Back to the library you go!

  • Maggie442

    A mature and welcome viewpoint. it is worth noting that animals’ role in medical science is not in serious dispute any more than man-made climate change is. For 140 years, activists have claimed it’ll never work, while treatment after treatment and discovery after discovery came out of it: all modern medicine, 100 novel Prizes, millions of human and animal lives saved by things like the rabies vaccine.

    Most people opining on this subject won’t bother to research it properly – seek out unbiased sources of information like the Home Office website which lists every single experiment. Unfortunately for them, every previous person to hold this viewpoint has found themselves on the wrong side of history.

  • alan

    It is very refreshing and encouraging to read an intelligent explanation of the value of laboratory animal research, instead of the sensationalist activist ravings that the media usually find so difficult to resist. Thank you for this important report!