Animal Testing: Is it the only solution?

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

Audience: Middle and High School Students

Animal testing is often regarded as a necessary evil; while it helps develop drugs for hundreds of human diseases—saving millions of human lives—it also inflicts pain, suffering, and often death on innocent creatures.

Animal testing poses an ethical dilemma: who’s life is more important?

This long debated question, however, is only one of many when it comes to discussing the practice of animal testing.

Mice and rats make up about 85% of the 25 million lab animals in the US. They are primarily used to conduct safety tests for drugs and vaccines. Photo by Oxana Kuznetsova from Unsplash.

What are the pros and cons of animal testing?

Animals, mostly mammals, are used in scientific research of diseases and drug development because they are the closest to humans in evolutionary terms, sharing up to 98% of DNA with humans. This means they are not only subject to diseases that humans experience, but also that their bodies react to diseases and drugs in similar ways. The biological similarities allow researchers to observe how drugs might affect the human body and predict any unintended consequences, while the differences in DNA provide an opportunity to understand the biological advantages humans lack. Additionally, the faster reproduction rate of most animals allows scientists to see the effects of a drug or disease over several generations.

If guinea pigs and frogs had not been tested on, scientists might not have developed inhalers, a device that sends medicine directly into the lungs. Without testing on dogs, the death rate of Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) would be double what it is today. Animal experimentation was a large part of developing a vaccine for the Ebola virus, and likely will be the same for a COVID-19 vaccine. But do these benefits outweigh the costs?

Animal testing is an application of speciesism: the belief that humans are superior to all other species, which leads to exploitation of other species for the good of our own.

The practice of animal experimentation includes infecting innocent creatures with diseases like cancer and depression to observe their suffering, inflicting wounds and burns to study healing, and causing distress through behavioral experiments like electric shock and forced swimming. These practices might save human lives, but they make us lose our humanity.

Though animal testing does sometimes help in the development of drugs and vaccines to combat diseases and viruses, it is also often futile. Over 90% of basic discoveries based on animal experimentation don’t result in human treatments, and about 89% of trials on animals provide misleading data because diseases that occur naturally in humans cannot always be accurately replicated in animals. With this level of ineffectiveness, over 25 million lab animal lives and about $16 billion of taxpayer money are wasted each year in the United States alone.

What, then, is the right solution: to continue animal testing for the sake of human lives or eradicate it to stop unethical mass murder and prevent wasting billions of dollars? Neither of these. The solution lies in implementing the 3Rs when animal testing is necessary and finding more ethical alternatives.

What are the 3Rs?

A framework for more humane and ethical animal testing, the 3Rs are the principles of replacement, reduction, and refinement. When all three practices are applied, animal testing only happens when absolutely necessary, and it happens in the most ethical way possible.

Replacement happens in two stages: partial and complete. Partial replacement aims to use animals that are known not to feel pain, like nematode worms, or primary cells and tissues from animals killed humanely for this purpose. Complete replacement is just that: eradicating animal testing as a whole and using alternatives.

Reduction aims to minimize the number of animals used in animal testing by sharing data within the scientific community. This principle helps ensure that tests aren’t done multiple times and that they maximize the use of each lab animal.

Refinement applies to the welfare of animals. It encourages researchers to adjust animals’ environments to allow them to behave naturally, as well as training them to cooperate with the tests in order to reduce distress.

With scientific advances, researchers have started using biotechnology to develop alternatives to animal testing. Some examples include gene editing in large animals and organ-on-a-chip technology. Photo by the National Cancer Institute from Unsplash.

What is an alternative to animal testing?

Organ-on-a-chip is a microfluidic culture device developed by Harvard University’s Wyss Institute that replicates the structure and function of real human organs such as skin, intestines, and kidneys. With live cells lining the hollow channels, the device is practically alive! Mechanical forces even simulate actions of real organs, including contraction and expansion. In fact, individual organ-on-a-chip devices can be linked together to create a body-on-a-chip, which models the interconnectedness of the human body by having fluids flow through common vascular channels.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a lung disease that obstructs airflow and affects over 24 million Americans. Its survival rate is lower than most common cancers, with the 5-year mortality rate ranging from 40% to 70%. Organ-on-a-chip technology has been used to manufacture a microfluidic human lung small airway that allows scientists to test various potential treatments for COPD. The chip replicates a human lung down to the hairlike cilia and is lined with cells from actual COPD patients.

What now?

Animal testing was necessary to bring human advancement to where it is now, but it has too many ethical and monetary costs to be a viable option moving forward. Animal testing should be left in the past, with alternatives like organ-on-a-chip brightening our future. These technologies continue to explore the middle ground between eradicating animal testing altogether and maintaining the status quo; all we have to do is improve and embrace them.


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