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J R Soc Med. 2002 June; 95(6): 277.
PMCID: PMC1279906

Animal experiments and the doctor

The debate on the use of animals in research tends to be polarized. At one extreme are the animal rights activists, implacably opposed to any use of animals, who cite cruelty, misguided experimentation and studies that offer nothing to scientific understanding or medical advance. These arguments are commonly targeted towards children and young adults—an influential and effective strategy. At the other extreme are scientists who proclaim how research in animals has led to important advances or cures for disease: ‘would you refuse to treat your dying child with a drug that had been tested on animals?’. Yet the medical profession as a whole has remained rather quiet. The very group that relies upon animal experimentation for the treatment it provides, and is well placed to explain the potential benefits, is perceived as having discreetly distanced itself.

Both sides make good points. We must agree that not all animal studies have been conducted in an acceptable way and not all have been designed properly to answer a scientific or medical question. Conversely, it would be perverse to deny that certain curative treatments and diagnostic advances owe their emergence to animal experimentation. Despite the apparent gulf separating the groups, UK law enshrines certain principles to which both sides can agree, albeit with different emphasis and approach—replacement, reduction and refinement, the ‘three Rs’. Put another way, if you don't have to use animals, don't; if you do have to use them, use the right number; and, if you design an experiment using animals, make sure that the maximum amount of useful data is collected for a minimum amount of suffering.

What are the prospects for replacement? According to a recent survey most establishments have a formal mechanism for discussing alternative approaches that avoid use of animals1. At a meeting at the British Association for the Advancement of Science very few in the audience answered yes to the conditional question, ‘If you could achieve the same advances without using animals would you continue to use animals in experiments?.’ Unfortunately, in many instances realistic alternatives do not exist.

And reduction? Just as in clinical research, the issue of numbers and power calculations is sacrosanct. To use too many animals is unjustified, but to use too few—so that a result is uncertain or uninterpretable—is equally unacceptable.

As to refinement, procedures must be developed so that answers to questions can be obtained with the minimum of suffering. This is an area where many involved in animal experimentation are looking hard for answers.

Good practice sets higher ethical standards than the law. Institutions have established animal ethics committees to ensure that the three Rs have been appropriately addressed and that research on animals has been peer-reviewed with sufficient rigour to ensure that the experiments address an important question with a valid design. Most journals will encourage peer-reviewers to comment on the ethics of research on animals, and work that does not meet a high ethical standard is likely to be rejected. There remains much confusion about experimental approaches. ‘Can't more be done in cells and using tissues’—yes, and it is being done, but it answers only certain types of question. ‘Won't the sequencing of the human genome mean that animal experiments are unnecessary?’—no, because to find out what a gene does one often has to disrupt it and see how that alters the development or physiology of an animal. ‘Isn't it likely that results in animals will be misleading’—the answer may be yes for certain aspects but an overwhelming no for defining general concepts or broad biological phenomena. ‘Can't more be done in healthy volunteers and patients’—yes, but here too there are calls for more constraints, and one of those is better testing in animals before exposing human beings to risk. Whilst the results of chronic toxicological testing in animals can be hard to interpret, knowledge of the pharmacology of a new drug in animals will, and should for the forseeable future, remain a prerequisite to first administration in man.

Medical practitioners—not just clinical scientists but full-time clinicians as well—should join the debate about animal experimentation; they are in a good position to correct misunderstandings and place arguments in a clinically relevant context. To paraphrase a statement from the Royal Society: the medical profession should condemn activities that break the law in pursuit of a particular position, but be part of the attempt to maintain and strengthen an ethical approach to the use of animals in research through discussion and debate.


1. Purchase IF, Nedeva M. The impact of the introduction of the ethical review process for research using animals in the UK: attitudes to alternatives among those working with experimental animals. Altern Lab Anim 2001;6: 631-2 [PubMed]

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press