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The big sacrifice

In animal research, uncomfortable questions are unavoidable

Stella Hill 27 January 2008

Lab animals: the unsung heroes of discovery

I have struggled, and still do, with the difference between the theory of animal research and the actual practice

I put the white mouse on the scale and note its weight on my notepad. When I put the mouse back in its cage, she crawls a few paces and then dies. My eyes fill up with tears and I feel them rolling down my cheeks as I write, “dead after weighing”.

It was four in the morning on a Tuesday; I stood fully clad in protective gear in the animal facility and said to myself, not for the first time: “I can’t do this”.

I knew when I started my PhD, more then seven years ago, that I would rely on animals for my lab work. My research, bacterial infection, began in vitro, as I studied how bacteria attach to animal cells in a Petri dish. Yet I had known it was only a matter of time before these results would have to be confirmed in vivo: in other words, putting these bacteria to the test in actual living animals. Otherwise, I would not be able to state with full confidence the scientist’s mantra: “I have investigated X and come to the conclusion, Y.”

At that time, because my institute didn’t perform animal testing in house, I could hide behind the fact that “someone else was doing the testing”. Nevertheless, I persuaded our research group to visit the laboratory with which we were collaborating, in order to see the animals that were giving us our results. I was, however, not allowed by my then professor to present pictures of the animals we tested at my research seminar. Why? Because it was “disturbing”, the professor told me, and not really necessary, since I had nice graphs of the results. Why rub it in that these data points represented actual animals?

I have been in the midst of the debate about animal research since I started my undergraduate education. This was especially true as I had been accepted into a program renowned for its biotechnology expertise, at a university that had an extensive percentage of students in the “animal rights” community. This controversial issue reached a boiling point when I ran for the board of the student union and some of the students in other departments questioned whether I could be impartial when it came to this issue.

My answer then, as now, is that I don’t approve of animal testing for no good reason. But in today’s world, it is very hard to conduct biomedical research without the use of animals; we simply don’t have any good alternatives for investigating the consequences of our in vitro research. We need to test drugs on animals before releasing them for human clinical trials: quite simply, there are sound ethical reasons, reinforced by law, which prevent us from endangering patients before we have solid evidence that they might work and are safe. However, it might be an easy statement to make if you are not directly working with those animals: it is still the only answer I can give, even after doing my fair share of killing (what ever a “fair share” means in this regard).

To go back to that Tuesday morning when I was weeping in the animal facility, I had to reflect once more on that all-important question: Can I really keep doing this? And the logical follow-up: since this is the critical question for me, can I approve of anyone else doing it either?

The answer is that I think we are in right. It’s a sad truth, since it must mean that I believe that the lives of the mice, rats and other animals we are using in research are worth less than those of humans. However, I do not think that it is an easy task, nor something that we should do lightly. Practically speaking, researchers should only use animals when the research is likely to yield results that would be expected to improve human health and security, and then, using only the bare minimum number of animals needed to make the results statistically significant by mathematical methods. And indeed, such general rules already exist in many countries.

Still, I have struggled, and still do, with the difference between the theory of animal research, with its potential benefits, and the actual practice. Even if I feel disturbed in the abstract knowledge that animal research has been performed to make possible a drug I use, this is nothing compared to the feeling I get looking down at the mice I now use in my everyday research and knowing that I am the one putting them through this terrible ordeal and subsequent death, not some nameless pharma or institute that I can hide behind.

Yes, the bacteria I am studying is pathogenic and dangerous. Maybe my results won’t lead directly to a cure, but ultimately I believe that my efforts will contribute, even if only perhaps in a small way, to an increase in knowledge needed to help humans battle the disease of pneumonia. I also know that pneumonia is one of the top killers of children in the developing world and that my research should help determine which treatment they will receive in the future. That was the hope I clung to that sad Tuesday morning, as yet another animal suffered and died at my hands: that people will be helped in the end and that the sacrifice of its life will not have been in vain.