National Anti-vivisection Society


National Antivisection Society

Does medical research need animals?

. Updated: 24 February 2015

No. Every year millions of animals die in experiments that are unreliable, unethical and unnecessary.

The fundamental problem of animal experiments is species differences. This means that each species responds differently to substances. Therefore the results of animal test can be misleading and sometimes dangerous when scientists try to use the results from animal tests to predict likely effects in humans.

This is why drugs that have been passed as safe in animal tests have been found to maim and kill people and are subsequently removed from the market.

Examples of such species differences are:

  • Morphine drugs are a depressant in rats, dogs, hamsters and other species, but produce tremors and convulsions at comparable doses in mice and cats;
  • Penicillin kills guinea pigs;
  • After severe blood loss, humans suffer damage to kidneys and brain, whereas dogs suffer damage to bowel, kidney, spleen and liver;
  • The epilepsy drug vigabatrin causes holes in the brain cells of dogs, but not of humans;
  • The anti-oestrogen breast cancer drug tamoxifen was designed as an oral contraceptive; it is in rats, but in women it has the opposite effect. It is now used very successfully in the treatment of breast cancer, despite having caused cancer in rats in some studies.

Furthermore, studies have also shown that laboratory results can vary not only between species, but also between laboratories, for the same species. It has been noted that the outcome of tests on the same species or strain can be affected by the animal’s age, sex, its diet and even its bedding material.

On the other hand, animal research can mislead and cause delays in the introduction of new treatments, for example the introduction of blood transfusions was delayed over 200 years because of misleading animal results; similarly the introduction of corneal transplants was delayed nearly 90 years.

Medical science has certainly progressed without animal experiments, and sometimes in spite of misleading animal research as mentioned earlier.

Progress that did not rely on animal experimentation includes:

  • Surgical procedures – removal of the appendix; removal of bladder stones; Brock’s technique for blue baby surgery and mitral stenosis; repair of cardiac aneurysm; removal of cataracts; removal of gall stones; repair of inguinal hernia; removal of the ovaries for tumours.
  • Hormones – identification and purification of insulin for diabetes.
  • The artificial hip – the inventor, John Charnley, refused to experiment on animals The hip which he developed is still regarded as the ‘gold standard’.
  • Childhood (acute) leukaemia drug – the first effective drugs for childhood leukaemia were introduced in the 1940s, from studies on patients. They were not tested on animal leukaemias until after they were shown to be useful in people.
  • Introduction of anaesthetics: chloroform, ether, nitrous oxide, and cocaine.
  • Asepsis – the understanding of sterile techniques in surgery.
  • Blood & circulation – understanding of the blood groups and rhesus factor; understanding of how the blood circulates around the body.
  • Drug discoveries – beta blockers for blood pressure; digitalis for heart failure; morphine as a pain killer; nitrite drugs for angina; quinine for malaria; salicylic acid, the active ingredient of aspirin.
  • Epidemiology– studies of people and their environment and lifestyle established the link between cancer and smoking, and the causes of heart disease.

However, it is important to remember that most research does not involve animals, but uses sophisticated solutions such as scanning, tissue culture, computer modelling, analysis and databases. These techniques have direct relevance to humans.

One of the leading cancer charities admitted some years ago that animal research amounted to only 2% of their animal research spend – and half of that money was spent on animal housing and care rather than science.

The Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research spends around £300,000 annually, funding non-animal research projects such as the latest neuro-imaging techniques to examine the human brain, instead of placing bolts and electrodes into the heads of terrified monkeys.

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