Why Animal Research?
For many thousands of years, humans and animals have worked together and depended on each other for protection, livelihood, nourishment, comfort, and company.
Today their association has expanded from the farm, field, and hearth into the laboratory. There, because of their striking parallels to human systems and structures, animals serve as scientifically valid surrogates, or substitutes, for people in research, development and testing. These animals have made possible antibiotics, vaccines against diseases ranging from polio to Lyme disease, blood thinners and other cardiovascular therapies, pain-killers and many surgical procedures.
The laboratory rodent used in testing protects all our families from dangerous chemicals (by helping scientists identify them).
Animals themselves often benefit from the surgeries, drugs and vaccines developed. Similarly, the research of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences benefits animals because NIEHS research contributes to protecting the environment for all the life that shares the earth - companion animals, farm animals, wildlife, marine life - and plant life as well. All share an existence requiring freedom from pollutants in the air, soil and water.But no matter how potentially beneficial the research may seem, before laboratory studies are begun, there are checks to assure that the work is really needed and doesn't duplicate other studies that as few animals as necessary are used... that their treatment is kind... that their surroundings and food are healthy and nutritious... and that veterinary care is at hand... as you will see in this article.
And, as you will also read, NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (which is headquartered at NIEHS) and other federal agencies have joined together to search out alternative test methods and approve any that prove reliable tests that would provide the accurate answers needed but with fewer animals or none at all. This effort is just beginning to show results.
What for example, is being studied?
Americans drink and use, in cooking and in baths and showers, gallons of water every day - gallons of clear, apparently safe water.
But how safe? Every chemical spill and agricultural runoff into lakes and rivers adds contaminants to ground and surface waters. Perhaps these are diluted enough to be relatively harmless. Perhaps not, at least over the long haul.
NIEHS toxicologists are pressing to find out if these low-level exposures may increase risks to pregnant women and their unborn children, and what role chemicals may play in the formation of cancers.
But people move from job to job and community to community. They do not live in anything approaching controlled environments, nor eat and drink the same things day after day. Thus, many illnesses and many observations of those illnesses are required to link a cause with a disease or effect. Animal studies, on the other hand, can help predict human health consequences before disease and death occur. These animal studies can thus help prevent a child or adult's death, disability or illness.
Caregivers Provide Animals with TLC
The animal caregivers at NIEHS are responsible for cleaning cages and colony rooms on a regular schedule as well as feeding, watering and observing their charges. When an animal caregiver noticed that one of 80 mice she was raising for an experiment was not eating properly, she called the NIEHS Clinical Veterinarian.
"The mouse would go off to himself and draw up and shake. So I called the veterinarian right away. It turned out that the little mouse had a nervous condition. The Institute's Clinical Veterinarian always comes back and lets me know what was wrong.""
"I watch out for all the animals in my colony. If one is too small and gets pushed away from the food by the others, I put a dish with some food by him and make sure he gets something," said the veteran of 16 years as an animal caretaker. "Before I came to work here, I didn't realize how well laboratory animals are cared for. It is clear that my work is very much a part of the whole research process. Because I know why the animals are being used, I feel I work harder and take my work quite seriously. We would lose a lot of human lives if it weren't for this research."
Myths & Facts About Laboratory Animals
Myth: Current federal regulations do not protect laboratory rodents.
Fact: The Health Research Extension Act of 1985 made Public Health Service Policy the law. The Public Health Service Policy specifically regulates the care and use of all vertebrate animals used in research, testing and education, giving mice and rats the same protections given primates, cats, and dogs. The U.S. Public Health Service supports approximately 40 percent of all biomedical research in this country.
Myth: Scientists are concerned only about their research, not about the welfare of the experimental animals.
Fact: Good science and good animal care are inseparable. Stressed or mistreated animals are not good research subjects. Instances of animal abuse are rare. Substantial evidence exists to show that animal research is conducted ethically and that federal and institutional humane guidelines are being followed.
Myth: Institutional animal care and use committees (IACUCS) are rubber stamp committees that do little to guard the welfare of animals.
Fact: Under law, if an IACUC rejects a project because of concerns about animal welfare, no one in the organization can overrule this decision. Federal and state inspections confirm that institutions with active and properly constituted IACUCs do very well in animal care and use. For the small number of institutions cited for deficiencies and violations, federal funding may be suspended.
Myth: Animal experiments are needlessly duplicated.
Fact: Unnecessary experiments are prevented both by rigorous scientific peer review of research proposals and by economic constraints. Projects are evaluated to assure that the absolute minimum number of animals is used. Computerized data bases are checked to assure that the projects would not unnecessarily duplicate previous research. Competition for funding assures that redundant experiments are unlikely to be approved.
Myth: Animal research is no longer necessary because there are non-animal alternatives to animal experiments.
Fact: There are a variety of techniques available to the researcher that do not require the use of whole animals. For example, cell culture techniques, which use live cells derived from animals and humans, most of which need to be cultivated in animal or human serum (a derivative of blood), have proven to be useful alternatives to the use of whole animals, as has computer modeling and other non-animal techniques. Together, they play an important and growing role in biomedical research.
Yet, with all the promise they hold, they cannot in the foreseeable future replace whole animal models in any comprehensive fashion. They cannot reproduce the interactions of intact biological systems (for instance, the nervous system and immune system) provided by live laboratory animals. Further, there is no alternative to the use of live animals if we wish to test whether or not a compound causes birth defects: if such a compound causes increased rates of fetal death or malformations in animals, it is virtually assured to cause some form of defect (perhaps different from the specific defect seen in animals) in human beings, and pregnant human beings should not be exposed to the compound.
Animal Tests Improve Health Care
Without the use of animals in research, neither human medicine nor veterinary medicine would have most of the drugs and vaccines that extend the lives and comfort of people, and of companion, farm and other animals. Psychiatry, neurology, surgery, public health and preventive health would not be remotely as advanced as they are today Polio, for example, would still be a major crippler throughout the world. We would be at the mercy of rabies, smallpox, tetanus, and diphtheria - all common killers in years past - as well as common measles and rubella (a once-common cause of birth defects)- chickenpox and Lyme disease. Animal research demonstrated the importance of Vitamin D in preventing rickets, the defective bone growth that used to plague infants and children. Animal research has resulted in insulin to control diabetes ... anesthesia to control pain ... tranquilizers ...lithium to treat bipolar swings ...the treatment of leprosy... organ transplantation and laparoscopic surgery.
In NIEHS' world of environmental health, here are a few of the benefits:
- A manufacturing process was changed, ending an excess of lung cancers in the industry, after animal research identified one of the chemicals used, BCME or bis(chloromethyly)ether, as the likely cause of the increased cancers.
- A pesticide's development and commercialization was halted, preventing human exposure to what animal tests revealed to be a potent cause of cancer.
- The government of India - after an industrial accident at Bhopal in which thousands died - could predict the health of the survivors, because there had been long-term testing of the accidentally discharged chemical on rodents at NIEHS. The NIEHS work suggested an emphasis on the effects on the lungs, advising that the long term effects on other body systems would be negligible.
- The risks to life and health of substances such as asbestos and the hormone drug diethylstilbestrol, or DES, (once used to try to prevent miscarriages) were demonstrated. Most of the 400-plus entries in the federal Report on Carcinogens depend on animal data.
References for Animal Research Article
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
- National Institute of Health