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Suffering for Science: Balancing the Costs and Benefits of Animal Research

Think for a moment, if you will, of all the chemicals that you conscientiously and unconsciously are exposed to everyday. Banal, daily-life things like toothpaste, cosmetics, food additives, pharmaceuticals. They are composed of manufactured chemicals, synthesized and tested in a lab. You have probably never doubted the safety of your toothpaste or the efficacy of your pain reliever, but that comfort and assurance doesn’t come for free. The testing of safety and efficacy of the chemicals that we subject our bodies to depends on the use of animals that may suffer for our conveniences.

Image credit: Flickr user Mycroyance

How do we – as a society – balance the cost of animal research with the benefits? Who decides how many and how much animals suffer for the conveniences of our daily lives? Are there other alternatives? In PLOS Biology we have recently published two Perspectives that looks closely at these questions and propose meaningful ways to think of these moral dilemmas and possible steps forward.


In “The Challenging Road Towards a Unified Animal Research Network in Europe” Emma Martinez-Sanchez and Kirk Leech of The European Animal Research Association (EARA) advocate for scientists and research organizations to increase transparency and openness about the use of animals and the scientific research and developments gleaned from their work. By increasing communication, scientists can combat misinformation. Through advocacy and outreach that explains the unique benefits of animal research, as well as efforts to reduce the use of animals, the public can form an accurate picture of animal research. The authors encourage applying the 3R strategy (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) during experimental design and the ARRIVE guidelines (Animal Research: Reporting in Vivo Experiments) when publishing animal studies.


One field that relies heavily on animal research is chemical safety assessment. Natalie Burden, Fiona Sewell, and Kathryn Chapman of the National Center for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3R) write in their Perspective “Testing chemical safety: What is needed to ensure the widespread application of non-animal approaches?” about the pressure to replace animal models. Currently animal models are considered the gold standard for determining if manufactured chemicals are safe for human use, exposure, or consumption. However, recent legislation in Europe that bans the testing of cosmetics on animals is propelling the development and use of non-animal techniques to assess chemical safety.


Burden and colleagues describe the challenges of moving away from animal models in the chemical safety field. The foremost challenge is in the development and acceptance of non-animal techniques that are able to accurately predict toxic effects. Replacing animal models will likely require a combination of techniques including in vitro methods, next generation sequencing and ‘omics’ technologies, and computational modeling. This will require not only the development of new techniques, but a standardization of the interpretation of results,and a cohesive regulatory process.


While our current scientific understanding and regulatory organizations require the use of animal testing to answer some key scientific questions, such as determining chemical safety, there are significant benefits to moving away from animal models. Scientists, research organizations, and regulatory bodies need to cooperate and work together to improve alternative techniques and their acceptance so that animal use can be reduced.


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