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The 9 Ways Animals Are Used in Science

Americans For Medical Advancement (AFMA) and I are frequently accused by those with a vested interest in the animal model of being animal rights extremists, favoring animals over humans, and hence pushing our position because of nonscientific reasons. This criticism is frustrating in part because no matter how often we refute it, like a noxious weed it crops up somewhere else.

On the other hand, we are also accused by some in the animal protection movement of giving far too much credit to researchers who use animals. Some, particularly those in the more radical, anti-science, anti-vivisection groups (for example those who quote Hans Ruesch extensively) claim that all animal-based research has been bogus and misleading and criticize us for not taking this view. Such claims speak for themselves.

This essay is an attempt to clarify where AFMA and I stand. I categorize the use of animals in science into the following 9 divisions.

1. Animals as models for human disease. (Predictive models)

2. Animals as test subjects e.g., drug testing. (Predictive models)

3. Animals as spare parts.

4. Animals as ingredients, factories or bioreactors.

5. Animal tissue to study basic physiological principles.

6. Animals for dissection in education.

7. Animals as a modality for ideas (are heuristic).

8. To benefit other animals.

9. Knowledge for knowledge sake.

AFMA addresses numbers 1 and 2 in the above table and holds the position that using animal models to predict human response to disease and drugs is simply ineffective. There are not alternatives to using animals to predict human response to drugs and to disease because, if words are to have any meaning, there cannot be alternatives to nonviable modalities. In other words there is not an alternative to driving a truck to the moon because one cannot use a truck for space travel. (For more on this, see my essay How animal protection groups are delaying the end of vivisection.) But there are other ways animals are used in science.

Animals are used for spare parts, number 3 on the list. For example many people have had an aortic valve from a pig placed in their heart to replace their own aortic valve. Similarly, animals can be used as factories or bioreactors, number 4 on the list. For example, for decades insulin was harvested from cows and pigs at slaughter. More recently, mice have been used to produce monoclonal antibodies. An example of number 5 would be the fact that researchers frequently use tissues obtained from animals to study basic physiological processes. I think most people are familiar with number 6, dissecting animals as occurs in schools. Some researchers admit they do not use animals as predictive models of humans because animals are not predictive models for humans but instead use animals only as heuristic devices (an aid in learning or discovering) or as a source from which to get new ideas, as in number 7. Of course, if a veterinarian or scientist wants to learn about diseases of cats, she can study cats which is number 8 on the list. The final area, number 9, is knowledge for the sake of knowledge alone. Many scientists and apologists for animal use admit this is why researchers use animals; not to cure human disease but simply to seek more knowledge. Of course, they seldom admit this in public or on their grant applications.

Numbers 3-9 are not examples of using animals as predictive models.

When one discusses the use of animals in research we also should really distinguish between past and present. For example, in the 1600s Harvey studied horses and deduced the circulation of blood. The first time insulin was purified it was obtained from a dog. As I have said many times, in the past advances were made by using animals in part because the questions back then were very different from those today. Today we are studying human disease at a very different level than we were even 20 years ago.

Numbers 3-9 are scientifically viable ways to use animals in medicine or science. The Three Rs or alternatives, that some animal protection groups tout, are viable for numbers 3-9. For example, aortic valve replacement surgery can be performed with a valve obtained from a cadaver or with an artificial or synthetic valve instead of obtaining one from a pig. Similarly, since we are now able to manufacture human insulin, insulin obtained from animals has become essentially obsolete. Animal tissue may be obtained should you wish to study basic physiological processes, but human tissue is plentiful and obviously supplies results more likely to be applicable to humans. Almost anything can be used as a heuristic device including cadavers and human research volunteers. For educational purposes there are myriad ways to accomplish what frog dissection accomplished without using any animals at all. Not every single use of animals in science and research represented by numbers 3-9 has an alternative but many do.

Before discussing the global topic Animal Use in Research, which many animal experimenters want to discuss, the people having the discussion need to agree that the above categories more or less represent the reality of how animals are used. If such an agreement cannot be reached, the discussion is meaningless, as each party will be talking around the other. There will no debate on the topic. Further, any debate will need to be broken down into the prediction issue and numbers 3-9 individually or collectively.

One reason AFMA was formed was to allow those who favor animal-use in science and those who do not to join a group and take a stand on the scientific validity or invalidity of numbers 1-9 above. Both communities would need to admit the scientific validity of using animals in some ways and the invalidity of others. This has nothing to do with the ethics of such uses. The science of animal use can be resolved. The science of animal use will probably need to be resolved before any major changes are made. Maybe that is why scientists who use animals are so adamant in denying the ramifications of evolution and complexity, the empirical evidence, and the scientific literature on the prediction issue. If they ever admit animals are not predictive for human response to drugs and disease, change might just happen.


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