Frequently asked questions on animal research

Is the use of animals in research experiments ethical?

Animal research also aims to contribute towards preventing or at least alleviating human suffering. Refraining from animal testing also means abandoning hope of finding treatment for patients who are deemed to be incurably ill. Animal research therefore presents scientists with an ethical dilemma as they have to weigh up the suffering of animals and humans. The importance of humans is greater than that of animals for most people. They therefore believe conducting animal research for human good is justified. Only 0.3 percent of all animals used for human needs are used in research (as of 2015).

Is conducting animal research for basic research justified?

In exactly the same way that astronomers cannot do without the stars for their investigations or a meteorologist without the climate, biologists cannot conduct research without living organisms. Animals have to be studied in order to understand how organisms work. It is only thanks to this research that we know today how animals cope in their environment and what they need to survive. Such findings continually also result in new methods, especially in medicine, as what makes animals ill is often also harmful to humans. Basic research is laying the groundwork for new applications, especially in medicine. Without basic research, applied research would be deprived of its basis.

Are the results actually transferable to humans?

Basic research leads to a deeper understanding of bodily functions – and of possible malfunctions. Every new therapeutic treatment is based on this. It is a fact that insights gained from animal models can be applied to humans. All species actually have common ancestry and are therefore closely related to some degree. In addition, over the course of evolution, nature has maintained many tried-and-tested processes.

Research on animals can therefore provide valuable information about the origin of diseases and the effect of medications. Food containing cholesterol
results in mice becoming overweight and asbestos causes lung cancer in rats. Animal research enables desired and undesired effects to be predicted. There are obviously differences between the species and not everything that applies to fish and mice can be applied directly to humans. All medications and methods of treatment must therefore be tested on volunteer human probands before being released on the market.

How high is the success rate of animal research?

That depends upon how success is defined. The aim of basic research is not to directly develop applications but instead to initially establish knowledge that can then be used for applications. Scientists in Germany can only carry out experiments on animals if they are indispensable for resolving unanswered questions. From this perspective, every experiment carried out correctly in terms of quality contributes to increasing our knowledge about nature.

In addition, there are countless examples of animal research resulting in new medical treatment methods, such as the discovery of the Rhesus factor in the blood of Rhesus monkeys, the development of operation techniques for organ transplants on dogs and pigs or the discovery of tumour-suppressing genes
in the genetic make-up of mice. There are also findings about the correct dosage of medications and their potential side-effects. The effects of new chemicals could not be tested without conducting experiments on animals either. It is therefore difficult to indicate a figure as a success rate. One thing is nevertheless clear – without animal research many people would die owing to a lack of medical treatment and of toxins.

Why don‘t you replace animal research with computer modelling?

Computer models do in fact support scientists in their research. They can sometimes help to predict the possible results of experiments which can then be verified using very specific experimental methods. They are therefore contributing to the reduction of experiments. However, such simulations require a reality check, as the models do not usually accurately reflect the real conditions. Most biological processes are not yet understood well enough to even simulate them approximately. The processes in one single body cell alone are much too complicated to be calculated by computer today.

What about cell cultures?

Cell cultures also help researchers to avoid conducting research involving animals. The cells firstly have to be taken from the animals. However, these cells may be multiplied and kept alive for years in incubators. Scientists can use them, for example, to examine why a change to a particular gene can turn a healthy cell into a cancerous one. As soon as they have established this, they can develop and test active ingredients to counter it. However, cell cultures do not make all animal research superfluous. They only consist of relatively few cells of a single type.

The body, however, consists of various organs which interact with one another in a complex way. Researchers can carry out tests in a culture of liver cells to discover whether an active substance can switch off cancer cells but not whether it produces harmful side-effects in the kidneys, skin or elsewhere in the body. Some organs, such as our brain with its 100 billion nerve cells, have such a complex structure that the way in which they work cannot be investigated using one culture of several thousand nerve cells. Drugs to combat illnesses of the brain, such as depression, anxiety disorders, Alzheimer‘s and Parkinson‘s cannot be developed using cell cultures.

What about non-invasive imaging techniques?

Imaging techniques, such as MRI and computer tomography, enable researchers and doctors to look inside the body without causing injury. Such methods are widely used in research today, for example, to measure brain activity and analyse the condition of organs. For example, animal research enables testing on whether a potential active substance can change brain activity to combat depression without harming the animal. However, the resolution of the images is not high enough to observe individual cells or to even look into cells. MRI cannot help to determine why some people suffer from Alzheimer‘s while others do not. All of these possible alternatives are based on findings produced by animal research.

There would be no computer models, cell cultures or imaging techniques without animal research. Animal research is also required to improve these methods and thus increase their predictive efficiency so that they can replace animal models more often in future.

What actually happens during animal research?

The tests carried out on animals depend upon the respective field of research. Today animal research also includes researchers modifying DNA to understand, for example, the role of a gene in the emergence of cancer. For example, animals are being included in the calculation which are required for the breeding of genetically modified animal phyla, where stress to the animal is anticipated owing to the genetic modification. The animals themselves do not have to be part of a research procedure.

In other experiments, the brain of animals is examined using MRI, a means of investigation that is also employed in medicine. Moreover, animal research includes behavioural experiments where animals find their way through a labyrinth or learn to play a computer game. The taking of blood or the administration of drugs is also deemed animal research.

Experiments where surgical procedures are carried out on animals represent a minority compared to those which do not cause stress or only a small degree of stress. The conditions under which scientists carry out such interventions are in line with those provided for with operations on humans. The animals are operated upon under general anaesthetic and sterile conditions.

Do the animals feel pain during experiments? 

According to the latest scientific knowledge, vertebrates feel pain in a comparable way to humans. The closer an animal is to humans in terms of evolution, the more it can be assumed that it not only can feel pains, but that it is also able to suffer subjectively.

Scientists do everything possible during the planning and implementation of their experiments to ensure that the stress caused to animals used in experiments is kept as low as possible. This is also important because research results are only meaningful if they come from animals free of pain and fear. If researchers cannot rule out the possibility of research causing pain, they administer pain relief to the animals or carry out the experiments under anaesthetic.

However, some animal experiments obviously cause stress to the animals concerned. The level of stress has to be indicated on every application for animal research and is decisive in the evaluation of the ethical acceptability of an experiment. This stress is weighed up against the pain and suffering of humans with incurable illnesses. All animal research therefore means weighing up the suffering inflicted on the animals against the gain in
knowledge and potential benefits for humans.

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