Or, 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