Animal Research and Ethics

In last ten years there have been lot of efforts in India to consider ethical issues of biomedical research and find ways to reduce or minimize the use of animals during experimentation.
Animal Research and Ethics

The scientific advancements are showing tremendous acceleration in recent decades, and at the same time we are witnessing a surge in 'science-ethics' dilemmas. As science is becoming an integral part of human society, there is need to address complex issues which may arise after implementation of scientific principles in practice. According to Andrew Brown, science writer 'Ethics are integral to science – and everyone's life'. Science unravels the solution to any problem; it may show us the way, but it may not provide us guideline which way is the right way. The onus is on the beneficiaries of science to use their wisdom while selecting the path of science. New questions have emerged in recent times with regard to the selection of moral code while debating the emerging technologies and their ethical concerns. Apart from philosophical discourse on the above issue, researchers and science practitioners should gear up their efforts to follow universal guideline for the safeguard of animal welfare.

In the last write-up I introduced basic aspects of 'science-ethics' conflict that we face at present (GK, 7th Oct., 2018). This write up will deliberate on the ethical issues related to animal research and our moral and legal obligation while dealing with animals. The aim is to keep aware budding researchers about the ethical issues and proper guidelines while they start their journey in research. Use of animals in experimentation is currently being debated among various stakeholders. It is pertinent to mention that the West is hugely dependent on animals (29 million per year) for in vitro experimentation. The demand for test animals for research in India has also surged in recent years, and there has been calls from various quarters to have control over the excess use of animals in research. General public is also getting involved in this debate; the Gallop and Pew poll in 2015 show that more than 50% Americans show deep concern with reference to the use of animals in research. In our part of the world, we are lacking general consensus about the use of animals in research, and therefore it is essential to highlight this important issue and aware general public about the pros and cons of using animals in research. 

Use of animals in research-A complex issue

The animals have been used in biomedical research from Greek era, however, they did not use animal for mass scale experimentation, and their overarching aim was to gain knowledge and explore various physiological processes. The use of animals in recent years has increased manifold in different areas of research. In the 19th and 20th century, animals were primarily used in pure and applied research. In recent times they have been used in toxicological testing, drug testing, cosmetic testing, and even for defense purposes. However, animal research is currently focused to develop new medicines and to analyze toxicological effects of various chemicals/products. It is pertinent to mention animal experiments pose considerable threat to animals involved during the experimental process. Some of the experiments may cause pain or injury, and others may cause lifelong debility in the test animals. Animal researchers are well aware of these ethical dilemmas while using animals in experiments, and they advocate that experimental procedure should be more humane. The actual problem of animal welfare starts when some researchers resort to unethical practice of using animals in harsh and tough experiments, where the chances of animal injury is quite high. In extreme cases, some investigators intentionally or unintentionally play with these beautiful assets of nature to accomplish their research endeavour at the cost of animal welfare. For example, Dr. Vacanti and his team in 1997 experimentally grew an ear on the back side of a mouse, which seemed unusual as far as natural architecture or morphology of the animal is concerned. There are numerous examples whereby animals have been exploited in the similar manner to achieve new and innovative goals in research. Having said that, there is little chance to abandon use of animals in experimentation as that would pose severe consequences for human health. 

There are two narratives regarding the use animals in research. One position is in favour of using animals for research only if there is minimum suffering to animals during experimental phase, and if there is no alternative for replacing animals in experimentation to get human benefits. This argument sounds valid as majority of research is carried out with the aim to reduce the human suffering. The second position negates the use of animals in experimentation as these so called experimental trials are harming animals, and furthermore there is less benefit of these experiments to humans. Animal activists further argue that the benefits achieved using animals in experimentation can be achieved through other means. Both of the above perspectives are right, nevertheless, the general consensus is that if level of suffering to animal is unbearable, and there is excess use of animal in experimentation without major purpose, then there is no moral justification for such research endeavours. 

Ethical consideration: the 3 Rs 

In order to minimize the distress and suffering caused by the excessive use of  animal in research and to make animal research more humane, William Russell and Rex Burch (1959) proposed the 3 R's—replacement, reduction and refinement. The first principle states that animals should be replaced by alternate method such as mathematical modelling or an in vitro biological procedure. The second tenet stresses for the reduction of number of animals being used in the experimentation. There is a need to reduce duplication of experiments as it will decrease the number of animals used in research. The third principle advocates the refinement of experiments so that possible harm to animals is minimized. Although, these guiding principles have been largely accepted worldwide, animal-rights activists show their reservation even on the 3Rs, and are demanding more extreme steps including replacement of animals. It is also important to note that the main issue is the implementation of these principles in practice. 

Other methods 

Several methods have been suggested to reduce the excess use of animals in research. Microdosing is being used in some experiments to reduce the number of animals in experiments. Whilst there is also scope to use this method in animal subjects, there are limitation also. The only shortcoming of microdosing is that it is hard to predict toxicological effects by using this method. Another potential method that can reduce the number of animals to be used in experimentation is cell-culture based tests (CCT). The CCT is an exciting method to screen the potential of new medicine in the initial stages, and can be accelerated 10-20 times. Also, researchers need to find alternative methods to investigate the efficacy of drugs without using animals. 

In last ten years there have been lot of efforts in India to consider ethical issues of biomedical research and find ways to reduce or minimize the use of animals during experimentation. To accomplish this aim, universities and research institutions have made separate ethical committees which formulate guidelines from time to time. These committees are responsible for any on campus violation of guideline for the safeguard of animals. It is important for varsities to implement ethical guideline in letter and spirit so that animals are used judiciously without exploitation.

To conclude, there is need to revisit the current status of animal use in experimentation, and put in place a framework for judicious use of animals in research. It is important to understand that good science and experimental design can held in reducing the dependence of animals in experiments. It is also to be emphasized that there is still need to use animals in experiments and abandoning the use of animals in the laboratory investigation will have severe consequences for human health. Given the importance of animal research in human welfare, use of animal can be morally and ethically justified. To keep the balance, researchers need to be more humane while dealing with animals in research. Let the debate continue vis-à-vis use of animals in experimentation, but researchers should follow feeling based approach to minimize harm to the test animals. 

Dr. Ummer Rashid Zargar is SERB-DST Fast Track Fellow, Department of Zoology, CUK, Sonwar Campus.

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