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I talked with Dr. Nuno Henrique Franco about animal welfare in scientific research. The questions we address are

  • Why do we do animal experiments?
  • What can be done to reduce the amount of animal experiments?
  • What are the regulations for animal research?
  • What do scientists think about the ethics of animal experimentation?
  • What is being done for outreach?

Nuno Franco is an expert on animal wellbeing in scientific research. He works as an assistant researcher at the “Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde” (Institute for Health Investigation and Innovation), or short i3S in Porto, Portugal. He worked on animal welfare, and animal ethics regulation, and he currently coordinates the national network of animal welfare bodies.

Why do we do animal experiments?

Animal research is mostly done in the context of health research. Researchers use animals instead of humans, because human experimentation at this level would be unethical. They also don’t make good study subjects from a practical standpoint. The history of medical research shows that animal research translates well to humans in most cases.

The consensus is that animal suffering should be minimized

In order to make animal experimentation conduct as humanely as possible, international legislation applies the 3R principle:

  • Replace animal use where animal-free methods would provide equal or better results.
  • Reduce the amount of animals used per experiment, and make the experiments as informative as possible.
  • Refine experimental protocols to cause as little pain, suffering, and distress as possible.

When talking about methods to test the toxicity of compounds, animal testing is successfully replaced by animal-free methods. For example by using cells grown in a dish. As soon as they have been validated, these methods can be implemented on a larger scale. This makes them very cost efficient. The development, however, is expensive and it does involve animal experiments.

Animal testing for cosmetics was banned by the EU, and it is further illegal to sell cosmetics for which new tests on animals were conducted. Only compounds used for medical purposes still need to be tested on animals for safety reasons.

When we talk about physiological research, the replacement of experiments by animal-free methods is less feasible. Of course there are – and always have been – animal-free methods which have advantages for specific questions. And often studies are animal free up until the point at which the questions concern the whole animal. Animal-free “in vitro” methods are being further developed. The latest innovations being “organs on a chip”, and “organoids”. Both represent miniature versions of single organs and have some degree of complexity beyond ‘simple’ cell cultures.

What are the limits of animal-free methods?

I am a neuroscientist, and in neuroscience, “organoids” have been hyped as “mini brains”. This is a crude exaggerations. While they do have neurons connecting to some degree, they are still far from being actual brains. Some researchers even raised the ethical issues of perfecting neuronal organoids to actual “mini brains”. Could such a brain experience suffering? Anyways, in neuroscience, in the end, we need to study the function of the nervous system in the context of animal behavior. And for that, we need the whole living animal.

And this leads us to the final conclusion on the limitations of artificial “in vitro” (cell cultures, organoids, etc) and “in silico” (computer models) methods for studying physiology. In order to recreate the whole physiological system of an animal, and study it, we need to already know everything there is to know about that animal. In other words, we would not need the model anymore.

Which regulations do researchers need to comply with?

There is a whole lot. The researcher needs to be licensed, the animal keeping facility needs to be licensed, and the project itself needs to be authorized. This means that everybody involved is trained in the 3Rs, animal handling, husbandry, and surgery. There is always a veterinarian on call, etc. To say it with Nuno’s words “there is a whole ecosystem” in place to ensure that all regulations are being complied with.

So researchers have to justify the use of animals, and they have to classify the severity of a procedure. This classification is difficult, because it’s highly subjective and biased by culture. Efforts are being made to harmonize this assessment. Anyways, a procedure that is finally judged to inflict severe harm for long periods of time will be rejected. In some cases, the authority will retrospectively analyse whether the claimed severity was exceeded, and the promised benefits were achieved. This is done to improve future cost/benefit analysis for approval decisions.

Researchers have the same ethical views as the general public

Nuno shared some preliminary results of a side project with us. It appears that researchers actually share the same concerns about animal experimentation as the public. The only difference is that they are more willing to accept the utilitarian argument for the general necessity of animal research.

What can researchers do for outreach?

Most people, once they know the benefits of animal research, agree that animal research is justified. This of course under the condition that everything it is done humanely. Only a small number of people will not accept utilitarian arguments. Such ethical extremists won’t be reached with outreach. However, providing context of the usefulness of animal research is key to increasing acceptance.

The second key element for reaching the public is transparency. Animal researchers are operating based on an implicit social contract with the public. This social contract relies on the trust granted to scientists by the public. But trust needs to be earned. One way to achieve this is to be open about what happens in the laboratories. This is why principal investigators must provide a non-technical summary of their ongoing project. These summaries are available online for the public to read. And there are further new efforts of institutes to be transparent about their procedures.

“We are not angels. There are a few instances when things go wrong, and these people have to be called out and sanctions have to be in order […] and some people should not be working with animals. But overall, I would say, almost all researchers working with animals are compassionate, competent people, and the public has to know that!”

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