Credit Nairne Clark

Animal testing – do we need it?

By Shiv

Animal testing is inherently controversial, is there an alternative, and most importantly, how do we get there?

In science, few debates acquire more ethical friction than the one about the use of live animals to establish the safety of pharmaceutical products or cosmetics. The necessity of animal use in labs has been questioned repeatedly through the years, and the consensus seems to be a reluctant “yes,” until viable alternatives are available. This contentious discussion has been reignited in light of a series of decisions made by the UK government regarding the use of animal testing in the cosmetic industry.

Testing cosmetics on animals was completely prohibited in the UK in 1998, but this ban was recently revoked, serving to antagonise animal rights advocates, The situation is further complicated by the revelation that animal testing licences were in fact being issued since 2019 (which was in line with the EU rules at the time), and several licences have been issued already, without public knowledge.

However, animal testing remains a gold standard for testing pharmaceuticals as a model of the human biological system. It is argued that the complex nature of the human body warrants comprehensive trials in order to ensure drug safety before the commencement of human trials. This perceived necessity does not come without controversy, since it involves animal sacrifice in order to further the advancement of human life and health. A recent study perhaps complicates this debate further – it suggests that rats, often used as lab animals, might possess the capacity for imagination, challenging some of the traditional perceptions surrounding the creatures. These revelations amplify ethical concerns around the inhumane treatment of animals that are capable of complex thought processes.

In light of these developments, it becomes even more important to look into the legal  frameworks that concern animal testing. Even though rigorous guidelines exist to prevent excessive the pain and suffering of animals in the form of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA), their implementation and enforcement varies, leaving ample room for interpretation and ethical divergence.

The most obvious solution to this dilemma would be to find a viable alternative to animal testing – methods that don’t involve testing potentially hazardous substances on live animals, but also present a reliable biological model for the human system. There exist relatively new technologies that show promise in substituting animal testing, such as organ-on-a-chip systems, in-silico modelling, 3D bioprinting or tissue co-cultures. These alternatives aim to replicate human physiology and its response to substances like drugs or cosmetics, which could serve to steer away from experimentation on animals. The utopian-sounding idea of testing products on, say, a bioprinted sheet of human cells, may not be as far-fetched as it sounds, but these technologies don’t see widespread use at the moment because of scaling-up issues and prohibitive costs, so robust scientific inquiry is required to test the functionality and adequacy of these methods. Although an in-depth inquiry of this nature would require about a decade or more, the humane treatment of animals can be prioritised by maintaining strict regulatory systems. These may include species-specific diet formulations, and housing options, as well as socialisation and enrichment activities.

Coming to any sort of viable conclusion would require ethical and scientific communities to come to a mutually agreed upon turning point – furthering technological progress without compromising the humane treatment of animals. The narrative around animal testing is thus evolving, spurred on by scientific discoveries that challenge notions about animal cognition and behaviour. The path forward requires a nuanced understanding of scientific and industrial requirements in order to make products suitable for human use without undermining the ethics of animal rights. This necessitates consensus between policy-makers, scientists, and animal rights advocates in order to navigate a transition towards scientific practices that are both accurate and ethically sound.

In essence, the solution does not merely lie in the substitution of one method for another, but redefining a scientific ethos that does not have to rely on live animal testing.


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