The Use of Animals in Research: Is There Any End in Sight?

Posted by Joyce Tischler, ALDF's Founder and General Counsel on April 8, 2013

Rat by Novartis AGRecently, I went to Brussels, Belgium to moderate a panel at the European Parliament. The panel was titled, "Worldwide Implementation of the 3Rs in Regulatory Toxicology: What are the Leadership Challenges and Opportunities?"

The "3 Rs" refers to a framework and, in some countries, legal mandates about the use of animals in research and testing. The first "R" is replacement, and it refers to the use of alternatives, such as cell cultures, computer modeling or other methods, instead of using live animals. The second "R" is reduction, figuring out how to use fewer animals in order to get comparable levels of information in a given test. The third "R" is refinement, which means improving the procedures and caging so that the animals experience less suffering, for example, the use of appropriate pain relief (analgesics and anesthetics).

The use of animals in research and testing has long been and always will be a highly controversial and contentious issue. On one end of the spectrum are people who consider replacement the only ethical "R;" on the other end are those who believe that animals always will be (and should be) used in science. Those arguments haven’t changed much in the 35 years that I’ve been involved in the debate. What has changed in the last decade is exciting technological progress to replace animals in toxicology and a groundswell of support among scientists who see in vitro or non-animal testing as the road to faster, cheaper and more reliable results. Finally, we can see light, however small and distant, at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

But, what has also become obvious is that the 3Rs are meaningless unless they are implemented in good faith. The Brussels panel brought together experts from various parts of the globe to describe and illustrate which of the 3Rs is being implemented in their region. It became clear that there is a great deal of variety in commitment to the 3Rs.

For example, in the U.S., as my colleague, Dr. Paul Locke of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins pointed out, refinement and reduction are getting greater attention and funding than replacement. We need to change that. Dr. Richard Fosse of GlaxoSmithKline pointed out that China, intent on attracting business, appears to show little interest in anything other than refinement.

On the other hand, Dr. Tuula Heinonen, Director of the Finnish Centre for Alternative Methods described the European Union’s regulatory approach as the most progressive in the world. Pursuant to the European Union’s Directive 2010/63, a researcher must first consider alternatives which will replace the use of animals. This may not sound like a lot, but it forces the researcher to consider methods which do not use animals before simply assuming that animals will be used. If no alternative exists, then the researcher must consider how to reduce the number of animals used (reduction) and how to minimize suffering (refinement). Mandating the implementation of this sort of structured approach on a worldwide basis would go a long way to reduce the reliance on animals and encourage the development of alternatives.

In Latin America, discussions about the 3Rs have only recently begun and organizations have been forming over the past decade to study and discuss the 3Rs. Dr. Octavio Presgrave of BraCVAM, the Brazilian Centre for Validation of Alternatives, described the nascent activities occurring in that region, but it will be some time before we can assess whether implementation of the 3Rs will become a reality.

Dr. Brett Lidbury, Assistant Professor of Alternatives to Animal Research and Fellow of the Medical Advances Without Animals (MAWA) Trust, Australian National University (ANU) described the situation in Australia and New Zealand as one in which there is a good deal of interest and some activity in the development of replacement tools, but no centralized coordination of efforts to bring about replacement. He hopes that his work at ANU will provide the leadership needed to push toward replacement in that region.

As the session drew to a close, I asked our audience to remember that animals are sentient beings who have not volunteered to be used in research and that we must find ways to replace their use. The way forward is to harmonize the most progressive approaches on a worldwide basis and to develop and validate alternatives at a much faster pace.

This event was part of an ongoing coalition effort of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, the Environmental Law Institute and the Center for Animal Law Studies.

More Information

To learn more about animal testing, check out ALDF’s new animal testing resource.

Animal testing resource


6 thoughts on “The Use of Animals in Research: Is There Any End in Sight?

  1. Diane Meier says:

    We need to lobby Congress for a law mandating consider of alternatives to using animals. The precedent for this is in the environmental arena in which alternative actions must be developed and analyzed for every major federal action in an environmental impact statement.

  2. Pamela Beck says:

    This is wonderful! I have been waiting for scientists to realize that there are alternatives to using defensless animals. The 3 Rs are very much needed and will be applauded for the humanity shown. I dream of the day when NO ANIMALS WILL BE USED to test anything.

  3. B. Knight says:

    I wonder if ALL of the tests ‘subjects’ were to be taken home at night and cared for if that wouldn’t put a more personal note on the tests. It would then be more or less a pet of sorts. What?, too many animals to do this? Well then STOP IT ALTOGETHER.

  4. Sarah Luick says:

    Well done and easy to understand article on the 3 Rs, as well as how they are being addressed worldwide. Thank you, Joyce, for going to the Brussels Conference and for standing up for the interests of the non-human animals – being a voice to lobby against their suffering. Your article is hopeful and that is a great feeling.

  5. Joan How says:

    I am so grateful to all those involved in the fight against the use of any animal in experimentation. I feel it is so arrogant of humankind to assume we are the “superior” animal when we should walk alongside all species with respect. Other species have much to teach us and we should not abuse or use them as we do.

    Please continue with all the good work you are doing.

  6. karen says:

    I would like to see the united nations make a world wide law for the entire earth that completely makes all animal experiments illegal!
    Its medieval and dark ages and Nazi concentration camps for these animals and it needs to be over. End of Story!

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