An Focal · Features

Modern Science: Friend to us and Foe to our animal counterparts

WHEN I think of animal testing I think of gruesome torture and mass protests by over the top activists. I may just be watching too many movies but I genuinely had no idea how animals were treated when they were being used for research when I began this article.

Animals are being used to research currently incurable diseases, and progress has been made in understanding conditions like breast cancer, HIV and muscular dystrophy. This research is priceless but the moral conflict is still there.

The vast majority of species used in these studies are rodents. Inbred mice have been created by generations of forced brother-sister mating, to produce mice that are almost genetically identical. They are used to create ‘models’ of human disease as there is little genetic difference between them.

Mouse models of arthritis often have ligaments in their limb joints damaged. Breeding can also create models while mouse genetics can be manipulated artificially to create models of disease.

However mouse models only display the symptoms of the disease they mimic. The underlying cause of the disease in humans may be completely different to that in lab animals.

Such procedures may seem horrific and unnecessary but this sort of research on rodents is commonplace in laboratories world wide. Scientific research on animals is not automatically a gruesome process carried out by greedy pharmaceutical corporations.

A strict legislation governing animal testing is in place. Ireland’s current legislation was set down by the European Union in 1986 and it’s enforced through the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act.

Anyone carrying out experiments on animals must receive a license from the Department of Health and Children. They must use the minimum number of animals possible, design their experiments to avoid any needless pain or suffering and they must use anaesthesia during all potentially painful procedures.

Sadly, there is evidence that not all animal testing is useful. Many animals’ lives are lost simply following protocol and considering how many drugs fail to make it to human trials, never mind to the shelves, some animals’ lives are lost for nothing.

And although there is legislation in place to ensure animals are not used unnecessarily or put through unnecessary pain or suffering, there is a lack of clarity as to how the animals should be kept.

Drug companies and research facilities have responded to calls for less animal testing with the three R’s: Replace, refine and reduce. They aim to reduce the number of animals used, replace them with alternative non-animal tests where possible, and refine experiments, causing less distress to animals.

It would be naive to say that animals are unnecessary for drug development. Drugs must be tested in animals before human administration to gauge side effects or correct dosage.

Rodents are responsive beings capable of feeling pain, fear, distress and boredom. Surely the least we can do for creatures that have saved so many lives is to acknowledge this, and treat them as such.

(text published in ‘An Focal’ 23 March 2011)

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