The Scientific Activist

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchOr, at least that’s what I thought when I read this article from Saturday’s Guardian:

Universities and medical schools have been criticised for increasing the number of animals used in research by more than 50% since 1996 while industry has reduced its procedures by 20% over the same period.

Campaigners say that a cultural inertia has meant that academics have been slow to adopt options such as tissue cultures or computer models. They argue there should be more funding to encourage researchers to find other options.

Gill Langley, director of the Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research, said: “There is an ivory tower mentality still … there’s no support for academic researchers who want to think about a different way.” Dr Langley and her colleagues have published a paper in the journal Bioessays.

The paper referred to in the article, entitled “Replacing animal experiments: choices, chances and challenges” appears in the September issue of Bioessays. The first author, Gill Langley, is not a practicing scientist. Her three coauthors (Tom Evans, Stephen T. Holgate, and Anthony Jones) are, however. The gist of the paper is that animal research is bad and is on the rise in the UK’s universities–despite the existence of perfectly good alternatives–because of a stubborn academic culture. Langley, who writes this kind of stuff for a living, is just doing her normal thing, and the other three scientists provide examples from their fields (sepsis, respiratory diseases, and pain, respectively) to help Langley try to make her case… something she ultimately fails at.

Despite the cooperation of three respected scientists, this paper descends into the same tired rhetoric that the animal rights activists constantly repeat. Animal research is unnecessary. Tissue culture and computer models are effective substitutes for animal research. Animal research is unreliable. And so on. Fortunately, they don’t take the next step and claim that animal researchers are in the field because they actually like hurting animals, but that’s about all that separates this paper from a speech at a SPEAK rally. And, I suppose the authors aren’t burning down buildings or digging up graves–two of the many intimidation techniques employed by animal rights extremists.

No new data is published. No new ideas are raised. No quantitative case is made. The evidence that is presented in the paper is anecdotal and generally only applicable to the narrow fields from which the examples come. Certainly there have been some fantastic and very clever instances of new technologies replacing the need for some or all animal research in a given area. And, this is of course something that should be encouraged. If an experiment can be performed as effectively without animals, then animals should not be used. However, if foregoing animal research means collecting sub-par data, remaining ignorant of a biological phenomenon, slowing medical progress, delaying treatment for a human illnesses, or–even worse–starting a human clinical trial without as much relevant data as could have been collected, then animal research clearly needs to continue. This is the case in the areas where it is still used.

I used to do tissue culture work (now I work in structural biology), and, in fact, I was in a lab that worked on in vitro models of angiogenesis (blood vessel development). We did this work, though, in order to dissect the molecular and cellular details angiogenesis in a way that could not be done in whole animals, but our work was by no means a replacement for animal studies that offer a distinct and more global understanding of these processes.

The paper in question notes that “Animal experiments conducted by industry in Britain have fallen significantly over several years, but those carried out by universities and medical schools have risen by 52% in the last decade.” While true, this statement is still problematic for a few different reasons. To start with, science funding in the UK has more than doubled in that period, so animal research is actually declining as a total percentage of research work done. Also, this statement fails to recognize the different natures of academic and industrial animal research. The increase in animal experiments in an academic setting can be mostly (and possibly solely) attributed to the increase in experiments with knock-out and knock-in animal models. Over the period of this 52% increase in academic animal experiments (1995-2005), the number of experiments with genetically-modified animals increased by 345%. This increase of 742,200 experiments involving genetically-modified animals across the board should more than account for the increase of 432,400 academic animal experiments. The number of experiments on unmodified animals actually decreased by 27% (a decrease of 617,100 procedures) over this period. This increase in experiments with genetically-modified animals comes as the science of knock-in and knock-out animals, along with the value of this research, has advanced tremendously. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for this research, and this is a point that the authors of the Bioessays paper do not even hint at.

As scientists, we should constantly be thinking about ways to reduce our dependence on animal research, and this paper does attempt to advance this cause. However, this should not be done at the expense of the science (and at the expense of human lives), and grossly oversimplifying the issue, as this paper seems to, does a service to no one.


Langley, G., Evans, T., Holgate, S.T., Jones, A. (2007). Replacing animal experiments: choices, chances and challenges. BioEssays, 29(9), 918-926. DOI: 10.1002/bies.20628

Comments

  1. #1 brtkrbzhnv
    August 28, 2007

    I think the most rational way to limit the amount of suffering by research animals would be for the research team to have to pay a charge proportional to the suffering. This is basically what they would have to do if they chose to use human subjects. The committees that are used to decide what animal experiments are permitted could be used to quantify the suffering; this should actually be easier than deciding whether the suffering is outweighed by the projected benefits of the research. It’s always good for those who reap the potential benefits to also pay the costs, at least as long as one wishes for the costs to be reduced to the optimal level.

  2. #2 Jeb, FCD
    August 28, 2007

    Yes, only the animals suffer. Certainly the evil humans carrying out the experiments don’t suffer a whit.

    I never have bad dreams or serious pangs of conscious as I euthanize animals to harvest their tissues for analysis. Never do I wish there was another way.

    Most animals rights activists hearts are in the right place, but too bad they don’t have hany fucking brains.

  3. #3 Mr. Gunn
    August 28, 2007

    brtkrbzhnv – have you ever completed a IACUC protocol? They’re pretty damn painful, if you ask me.

  4. #4 the scientician
    August 29, 2007

    It’s funny, you say:
    “As scientists, we should constantly be thinking about ways to reduce our dependence on animal research”

    But the truth seems to be that we don’t on a day to day level. No judgement being made here, more of an observation. Maybe it’s just me.

  5. #5 Alex the Canuck
    August 29, 2007

    This is such a emotional subject.
    Most people just see the poor puppy being opened since they do not understand the research behind that specific experiment.
    Most people don’t know what are the administrative hurdle to have animal experiments approved. If they knew maybe they would understand that these kinds of experiments are taken seriously and most of them are approved because it is often the best if not the only way to adavance medical knowledge in certain fields.
    And more importantly, people should be informed again and again of what past, present and future medical and scientific breakthroughs animal expirements have and will enable. SPEAK, PETA and other so-called “animal rights” activists are presently monopolizing the message on this issue. Science minded citizens who think animal experiment is usefull really have to stand-up and say why.

  6. #6 Paul Browne
    August 30, 2007

    Alex makes an excellent point. While orgaizations such as RDS (http://www.rds-online.org.uk/)and Pro-Test (http://www.pro-test.org.uk/) do an excellent job and do dispel many of the myths associated with animal research and make the case for the ongoing use of animals in research they simply don’t have the staff or time to tackle every aspect of research.

    In my opinion what is needed are detailed accounts, perhaps 2,000 words & references, on the role played by animal research in particular medical advances and in ongoing research. These should stress the reasons why animal studies were necessary, and why the non-animal techniques (in vitro, computer modelling , human clinical research etc.) available were not capable of providing the necessary information.

    Scientists could these essays about their own area of expertise and submit them, along with 100 word summaries, to organizations like Pro-Test who could add them to their website where they could be referred to at later dates.

    It would be much easier to challenge anti-vivisectionists if we could point journalists or members of the public to detailed well written accounts of the role of animal research in medical science. Realistically the only people who can provide such information are the scientists and physicians who are doing the research.

    For an idea of what I’m thinking of see http://www.rds-online.org.uk/upload/docs/Medical%20Advances%20final.pdf
    but perhaps more and even more detailed accounts would be useful.

  7. #7 anonymous
    September 2, 2007

    The question is as simple as this.

    Does the animal in question have a right to live?

  8. #8 Bovis
    September 29, 2007

    Great blog, keep it going !

    BO

  9. #9 Bagpuss
    October 9, 2007

    Great blog. Another point to note is that pharma (normally villified by antis for being the leaders of the ‘Global Medical Conspiracy’) are praised for reducing their procedures by 20%, unlike those evil academics. No acknowledgement that animal use in industry is primarily safety testing, and standardised procedures. It’s easier to develop simpler/more efficient/ cheaper (possibly non-animal) ways of doing things with a standardised procedure.

    In academia, where basic research is the norm, every project is different so a one-size-fits-all approach just isn’t feasible. Langley et al grudgingly acknowledge this half way or more through their article, but only after getting their digs in at the abstract/beginning of the piece.

    And something else on the ratio of biomed funding increases to animal use:
    The ABPI has published industry R&D here http://www.abpi.org.uk/statistics/section.asp?sect=3 – if you combine this with gov funding (primarily through the Medical Research Council), between 1994-2005 total UK biomed R&D spend went up by over 70%. Given that inflation in the sector is well above national average (see below), we can conservatively say that there’s been an increase over 50% in real terms. In the same time period animal use has increased by just 11% due, as you noted, to GM animal use overcountering the downward trend in ‘normal’ animals. And as you also said, this means that animal research is a smaller proportion of biomed research.

    Therefore, by causing above average inflation for the sector due to increased security costs etc, animal rights/antiviv activists are responsible for diverting money from (predominently and increasingly) non-animal medical search – the very thing they want more of!

    You couldn’t make it up.

  10. #10 Cohen
    December 8, 2007

    Great blog

    Thanks…

  11. #11 Doug Spoonwod
    March 6, 2012

    Science qualifies as a tool, and it consists of an abstraction… not an individual of some sort. Nonhuman animals do not consist of tools, but rather independent individuals with interests in their own right. So, if you put science ahead of a nonhuman animal’s right to live, you’ve put an abstraction over a living being with interests. It comes as one thing to weigh the relative values of different lives, but to put a tool or abstraction ahead of any sort of a living being indicates that one probably values curiosity more than actually lives. How is your curiosity concerning a biological phenomenon all that important, especially in light of the fact that no matter how much knowledge you gain concerning any biological phenomenon, there will always exist *more* biological realities which you will never understand? If you deny that there will always exist more biological realities which one will never understand, then how does scientific investigation actually tend to increase the number of questions concerning phenomena?

    It comes as one thing to say that sacrificing some lives to save others comes as necessary. But, when you say “However, if foregoing animal research means collecting sub-par data, remaining ignorant of a biological phenomenon…” you indicate that you value satisfying your own curiosity over *other* animal’s lives. The latter part of your statement (not quoted here) may hold true. But, this does NOT show that research on other animals should continue, as there exists no qualification to that claim. It *only* shows that research *which* actually contributes to the decrease of real human (also nonhuman animal) suffering should continue. Research which merely satisfies one personal curiosity or the curiosity of one’s friends does not do this.

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