Why is animal research necessary?
There is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some animals are still needed in order to make medical progress.
Where animals are used in research projects, they are usually one part of a range of approaches used to address a scientific or medical question. These might include human trials, computer modelling, cell culture, statistical techniques, and others. Animals are only used for parts of research where no other techniques can deliver the answer.
A living body is an extraordinarily complex system. You cannot reproduce a beating heart in a test tube or a stroke on a computer. While we know a lot about how a living body works, there is an enormous amount we simply don’t know: the interaction between all the different parts of a living system, from molecules to cells to systems like respiration and circulation, is incredibly complex. Even if we knew how every element worked and interacted with every other element, which we are a long way from understanding, a computer hasn’t been invented that has the power to reproduce all of those complex interactions - while clearly you cannot reproduce them all in a test tube.
While humans are used extensively in research at the University of Liverpool, there are some things which ethically we cannot use humans for. There are also variables which you can control in a mouse (like diet, housing, clean air, humidity, temperature, and genetic makeup) that you could not control in human subjects.
Is it morally right to use animals for research?
Most people believe that in order to achieve medical progress that will save and improve lives, perhaps millions of lives, limited and very strictly regulated animal use is justified. That belief is reflected in the law, which allows for animal research only under specific circumstances, and which sets out strict regulations on the use and care of animals. It is right that this continues to be something society discusses and debates, but there has to be an understanding that currently without animals we can only make very limited progress against diseases like cancer, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and HIV.
It’s worth noting that animal research can provide benefits to animals too: more than half the drugs used by vets were developed originally for human medicine.
Aren’t animals too different from humans to tell us anything useful?
No. Just by being very complex living, moving organisms they share a huge amount of similarities with humans. Humans and other animals have much more in common than they have differences. Mice share over 90% of their genes with humans. A mouse has the same organs as a human, in the same places, doing the same things. Most of their basic chemistry, cell structure and bodily organisation are the same as ours. Fish and tadpoles share enough characteristics with humans to make them very useful in research. Even flies and worms are used in research extensively and have led to research breakthroughs.
What does research using animals actually involve?
The sorts of procedures research animals undergo vary, depending on the research. Breeding a genetically modified mouse counts as a procedure and this represents a large proportion of all procedures carried out. So does having an MRI (magnetic resonance image) scan, something which is painless and which humans undergo for health checks. In some circumstances, being trained to go through a maze or being trained at a computer game also counts as a procedure. Taking blood or receiving medication are minor procedures that many species of animal can be trained to do voluntarily for a food reward. Surgery accounts for only a small minority of procedures.
How many animals are used?
21,694 in 2019
22,465 in 2018
19,606 in 2017
|Mice are the most widely used species for biomedical research. Many of the numbers used are for maintenance of breeding colonies for future research.
||179 in 2019
117 in 2018
113 in 2017
|Zebrafish are an important model species and research aims to improve their welfare in experiments by developing monitoring tools and pain-relief protocols.
||311 in 2019
338 in 2018
314 in 2017
|The majority of our rat usage is for tissues only and they have largely been replaced by mice and Zebrafish.
||653 in 2019
262 in 2018
1284 in 2017
|The majority of our fowl usage is for vaccine research to reduce foodborne infection which can be potentially life threatening.
||40 in 2019
93 in 2018
93 in 2017
|The majority of our research using sheep involves minorprocedures such as taking of a blood sample to help our understanding of common infectious diseases of sheep in the UK.
||2407 in 2019
116 in 2018
3 in 2017
|Research using cattle addresses key interactions between animal management and fertility with the aim to improve animal welfare.
||0 in 2019
102 in 2018
48 in 2017
|Fish are now the second most popular laboratory model behind mice and studies aim to improve housing conditions by investigating the impact of enrichment.
||62 in 2019
122 in 2018
62 in 2017
|Research using rabbits has been translated directly into human trials.
||0 in 2019
0 in 2018
18 in 2017
|Research using horses and ponies are for the benefit of the species themselves.
||0 in 2019
0 in 2018
805 in 2017
|Wild rodents are studied to understand their behaviour, communication and reproductive strategies, and disease dynamics in natural communities.
Aren’t there alternative research methods?
There are many non-animal research methods, all of which are used at the University of Liverpool. These include research using humans; computer models and simulations; cell cultures and other in vitro work; statistical modelling; and large-scale epidemiology. Every research project which uses animals will also use other research methods in addition. Wherever possible non-animal research methods are used. For many projects, of course, this will mean no animals are needed at all. For others, there will be an element of the research which is essential for medical progress and for which there is no alternative means of getting the relevant information.
How have humans benefited from research using animals?
As the Department of Health states, research on animals has contributed to almost every medical advance of the last century.
Animals were used for the development of blood transfusions, insulin for diabetes, anaesthetics, antibiotics, heart and lung machines for open heart surgery, hip replacement surgery, chemotherapy for leukaemia, and life support systems for premature babies.
Life expectancy in this country has increased, on average, by almost three months for every year of the past century. Within the living memory of many people, diseases such as polio, turberculosis, leukaemia and diphtheria killed or crippled thousands every year. But now, doctors are able to prevent or treat many more diseases or carry out life-saving operations - all thanks to research which at some stage involved animals.
We may have used animals in the past to develop medical treatments, but are they really needed in the 21st century?
Yes. New techniques have dramatically reduced the number of animals needed - the number has almost halved over the last 30 years - but there is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress. It only forms one element of a whole research programme which will use a range of other techniques to find out whatever possible without animals. Animals would be used for a specific element of the research that cannot be conducted in any alternative way.
How will humans benefit in future?
The development of drugs and medical technologies that help to reduce suffering among humans and animals depends on the carefully regulated use of animals for research. In the 21st century scientists are continuing to work on treatments for cancer, stroke, heart disease, HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and very many more diseases that cause suffering and death. Genetically modified mice play a crucial role in future medical progress as understanding of how genes are involved in illness is constantly increasing.