Introduction to the Talking Point on the use of animals in scientific research
The balance between the rights of animals and their use in biomedical research is a delicate issue with huge societal implications. The debate over whether and how scientists should use animal models has been inflammatory, and the opposing viewpoints are difficult to reconcile. Many animal-rights activists call for nothing less than the total abolition of all research involving animals. Conversely, many scientists insist that some experiments require the use of animals and want to minimize regulation, arguing that it would impede their research. Most scientists, however, try to defend the well-established and generally beneficial practice of selective experimentation on animals, but struggle to do so on an intellectual basis. Somehow, society must find the middle ground—avoiding the cruel and unnecessary abuse of animals in research while accepting and allowing their use if it benefits society.
In any debate, one should first know the facts and arguments from each side before making an educated judgement. In the Talking Point in this issue of EMBO reports, Bernard Rollin provides ethical arguments against animal experimentation (Rollin, 2007). Rather than simply demanding adequate regulations to ensure animals are well treated and do not suffer unnecessary and avoidable pain, Rollin questions the assumption that humans have an automatic right to make decisions for other animals. In his expansive and stimulating article, he concludes that there is no logical basis for the way in which we treat animals in research; in fact, we would not tolerate such treatment if the animals were Homo sapiens; therefore, we cannot tolerate such treatment for other sentient creatures that, like us, are able to experience and suffer pain.
Practicing scientists will be comforted by the views of Simon Festing and Robin Wilkinson from the Research Defence Society in London, UK, who emphasize the extent to which legislation already limits the use, and ensures the welfare, of animals used in research (Festing & Wilkinson, 2007). With a particular focus on the UK, they highlight how public opinion and legislation have worked together to control invasive research on animals within a legal and ethical framework, despite objections from the scientific community to the additional bureaucracy and costs that such laws engender. It is ironic then, that the UK is also where militant opponents of animal research have committed the most attacks against scientists and research institutes.
Turning to the wider picture, the European Commission is now rewriting its 1986 Directive on the protection of animals used for experimental and other scientific purposes. The Commission intends to reiterate its emphasis on the 3Rs—replacement, reduction and refinement—as a way to reduce the number of animals used in biomedical research (Matthiessen et al, 2003). However, the recent passage of the REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) directive, which calls for the additional testing of tens of thousands of chemicals to determine if they pose a danger to humans and/or the environment, inevitably means bad news for laboratory animals. According to the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, the implementation of REACH will involve the killing of up to 45 million laboratory animals over the next 15 years to satisfy the required safety tests (Hofer et al, 2004).
Although optimists might think that cell-based tests and methods could replace many of the standard safety and toxicity tests for chemicals or medicines, regulatory bodies—such as the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products—are not in a rush to accept them. After all, their task is to protect society from the devastating side effects of new...