Despite tremendous governmental, corporate and social awareness, and the concerted efforts to address its ethical implications, the use of animals as test subjects is still widely practiced today. In actuality, based on academic research trends, the focus on animal testing appears to have changed from whether it is ethical to why it continues to be a popular method for clinical experimentation. In other words, why does this practice continue to flourish, despite tremendous awareness of the underlying ethical implications corresponding with it? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this heatedly debated question. This is because there are many intricate aspects regarding the issue of animal testing.1
As such, I begin this essay describing how animal testing commenced and how it has evolved. I then elaborate on the increasing voices against animal testing, the various factors that propel the continued motivation to conduct animal testing, and describe alternatives to animal testing by highlighting current trends in clinical experimentation. This is followed by the consideration of other critical factors or trends that are paving the way towards addressing the ethical implications of animal testing. I then present some scenarios before concluding my essay.
The Evolution of Animal Testing
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The beginnings of animal testing date back to the writings of the Greeks in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC; where according to a report by Cohen and Loew, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and Erasistratus (304-258 BCE) are acknowledged as being among the first to experiment on living animals.2 Later, Galen, a 2nd-century Roman physician known as the "father of vivisection", dissected pigs and goats.3 Since then, there has been virtually no historical record on animal testing until the 12th-century, where an Arabic physician, Avenzoar, promoted animal testing as an approach to experimenting and testing surgical techniques before applying them to human patients.4, 5
In terms of the first, most considerable reference to animal testing, historical records point to early 19th century, when Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and microbiologist, credited for creating the first vaccine for rabies and anthrax, conducted experiments on sheep, proving the significance of vaccines as well as to support his germ theory of disease.6 This was followed by Charles Darwin's work Circa 1850; where in proposing his theory of evolution, he put forward the idea "that animals could serve as effective models to facilitate biological understanding in humans."7
Upon entering the 20th and 21st centuries, historical records reveal the continued rise in the practice of animal testing. In 1921, Frederick Banting discovered that dogs with diabetes could be kept alive via isolated pancreatic secretion (of insulin). He then collaborated with John Macleod, in 1922, to experiment the chemical isolation of insulin on cattle instead of dogs, improving insulin supply. Before the discovery of insulin however, people afflicted with diabetes had no other alternatives to manage the disease. In fact, the diagnosis of diabetes mellitus meant certain, impending deathâ€¦ In the 1940s, an estimated 100,000 Rhesus monkeys were reportedly used by John Salk and his research team to isolate elements of the poliovirus and was subsequently able to create a vaccine against the strains of polio. In the same era, John Cade's search for a pharmaceutical cure to treat recurrent mania led to him to successfully test lithium salts in guinea pigsâ€¦ The 1950s saw the development of the first safer, non-volatile anesthetic halothane, which has been lauded for paving the way for the development of modern general anesthetics; for without which today's complex surgeries would be impossible to conduct. Having said that, continued experimentation on rodents, rabbits, dogs, cats and monkeys drive (ongoing) developments of general anestheticsâ€¦ Moving on to the 1960s, the focus in that era was heart valve replacement surgery in humans. It was initiated by Albert Starr who successfully formulated a series of surgical advances by experimenting on dogs. This motivated Carpentier who much later (1968) researched heart valve replacements by experimenting on the heart valves of pigs.8
From the 1970s till today, the practice of animal testing in biomedical research continues to thrive, i.e. from combating diseases like leprosy, to perfecting organ transplant techniques and anti-transplant rejection medications, to developing antibiotics e.g. penicillin, and vaccines for whooping cough. In fact, all signs point not only to the continued practice of animal testing in biomedical research that aim to solve current medical problems such as AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injury, but that animal testing has also become widely practiced in the commercial development of products for human use, i.e. cosmetics development.8, 9
The Growing Voices against Animal Testing
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Despite the tremendous benefits to mankind as a direct result of animal testing, anti-animal testing groups have mushroomed in these past decades, protesting animal testing on behalf of these voiceless creatures. For these activists, the heart of the issue is the pain, distress and suffering inflicted on animals through testing, and they are further aggrieved by ineffective laws concerning the welfare of laboratory animals. For instance, although the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 was enacted to enforce the humane treatment of laboratory animals, the "fine prints" of the law did not, and still do not, factor or put limits on research methods such as genetic manipulation, toxicity testing and dissection. 10
As a result, these activist groups have become especially vocal and pledged to make continuous calls to regulatory agencies, research institutions and commercial enterprises to consider alternative approaches.
Factors that Foster Continued Animal Testing
However, regardless of whether one is against animal testing or not, the fact of the matter is that it continues to be the main mode of toxicity and biomedical testing.10 I believe the following factors foster the continued application of animal experimentation:
Past Successes and Precedents
As stated in "The Evolution of Animal Testing", past successes and prior incidences originating from animal testing not only serve as the justifications, they also bolster interest and motivation in the implementation of animal experimentation.
Current Testing Capabilities
Current testing approaches and techniques, as advanced as they are right now, rely first, and mainly, on the observation of physical and/or emotional responses in laboratory animals prescribed with concentrated doses of chemical/viral/bacterial/other organic agents. In fact, inferences about health risks and/or effects to human populations are subsequently based on such observations. This does not enable the elimination of animal testing.10
Globalization and Economic Factors
Through globalization, advances in biomedical research, technological innovations and the subsequent birth of the sophisticated consumer, there are unspoken yet mounting unconditional expectations: that commercial products ought to be 'safe' for human use; that diseases could be better understood, hence, overcome; that certain occupational and workplace hazards can and should be reduced; that generally, human beings should be accorded better protection than in the past concerning the environment in which they inhabit.9 These factors invariably lead to demands for more toxicity testing.
Alternatives to Animal Testing: Current Trends
The Concept of Replacement Alternatives
Indeed, the concept of alternatives to animal testing is gaining acceptance today.1, 9, 10, 11 FRAME, an organization founded in the 1960s, was established upon the fundamental belief that the only way to resolve the ethical implications concerning animal testing was to alleviate the dependence or need for such research. This is done by encouraging the 'Three R's' - reduction, refinement and replacement - and is built upon the philosophy of what is now known as replacement alternatives; through the promotion of proper scientific development, validation, evaluation and acceptance without relying on the use of animals.
Current Trends in Replacement Alternatives
Animal testing is conducted traditionally for a variety of reasons, namely for clinical diagnostic purposes, to assess safety and efficacy, and to enable other research purposes, e.g. to better understand biological mechanisms, etc. Of the three, we see that a majority of tests requiring the use animals for diagnostic purposes are currently being replaced by other methods. Apparently the motivations for their replacement are enhanced sensitivity, specificity, output, speed and savings.12
Thus, early successes and precedents in applying alternative approaches (to animal testing) foster the creation of more replacement alternatives. These include improving the storage of information so tests need not be repeated, maximum use of predictions passed on the physical and chemical properties of molecules, mathematical modeling of quantitative structure-activity relationships, molecular modeling and the use of computer graphics, mathematical modeling of biochemical, physiological, pharmacological and toxicological systems and processes, the use of lower organisms not protected by legislation controlling animal experimentation, including invertebrates, plants and microorganisms, the use of in vitro methods such as nantotechnology.1, 9, 10, 11 In fact, there is growing belief among the different stakeholder groups that a combined application of the various alternative approaches would not only enhance sensitivity, specificity, output, speed and savings, it could possibly replace the need for animal testing.
Other Critical Factors or Trends1
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Observations into exogenous factors and trends indicate that scientists and commercial entities are now looking for cheaper, more accurate and more humane methods of toxicity testing. These critical factors and trends are briefly stated below:
There is a significant push towards the development of new technologies such as nanotechnology, and using computer models to simulate scenarios. Although these technological developments are still considered to be in its infancy, these methods are strenuously believed to be able to reduce the need for animal testing.
There is growing collaboration between industries and academic laboratories. This is vital as innovation, identifying new procedures, and funding are all required to enable real-world applications.
High-profile trans-Atlantic initiatives have been established in recent decades to promote the 3 R's, e.g. John Hopkins University's FRAME which is associated with Avon Products Inc., and CAAT (Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing) for having established strong connections with the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance association (CTFA) in the US as well as the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) in the United Kingdom.
Significant strides on irritancy potential have been made in terms of the use of acute toxicity tests for cataloguing chemicals, and the detection of ocular and dermal irritants for animal test subjects.
The Complete Ban on Animal Testing
As much as it pains me to say it, the scenario where there is a complete ban on animal testing would lead to the significant push for human testing and replacement alternatives. Realistically speaking, humans would not volunteer as test subjects unless they are personally inflicted by a disease which researchers have yet to find a cure. Even if there are consenting test subjects, there must be a base level of safeguards undertaken in the testing process. This would be very hard to ensure since animal testing for the base safety level is banned. As regards replacement alternatives, there are also no guarantees that every factor would be taken into consideration during tests since the true effects of a given cure could only be observed upon human or animal usage.
The Complete Ban on Both Animal and Human Testing
The scenario of the complete ban on both animal and human testing would not only immensely impede ongoing research on yet-to-be solved diseases, it would place enormous psychological and social pressure on researchers tasked in finding, developing and perfecting replacement alternatives.
The Continued and Permitted Practice of Animal Testing
The scenario of the continued and permitted practice of animal testing appears to be the most beneficial for humans. This means that we place our kind above all other living things and the ethical implications of animal testing would remain unresolved. On the one hand, researchers can better verify their research findings because of animal testing. But on the other hand, researchers may become over-reliant on this method instead of trying to incorporate or develop replacement alternatives.
Despite it being the most popular approach, there is no denying the ethical implications of animal testing. This is due to a combination of critical factors such as the infancy or insufficiency of testing replacement alternatives, the ongoing research to find cures for diseases, and globalization and the subsequent development of the sophisticated consumer.
In my opinion, although the various stakeholders are exerting tremendous efforts to curb or eliminate animal testing, there is still a long ways to go before this can be realized.
But with time, patience, greater financial resources poured into it, the careful practice of good science, and effective collaborations, I believe the goal of total elimination of animal testing will one day be achievable.