Why is animal testing still a thing? And what alternatives do we have?
As a consumer, you have most likely come across products that advertise with being cruelty-free or being free of testing on animals, suggesting that brands who don’t mention this on their packaging, do test their products on animals. Is it even necessary to perform animal testing to make sure products are safe for human consumers? Or is it just an outdated practice and an easy, cost-efficient R&D method for companies? Why is animal testing still a thing?
As a child, I used to think animal testing was just people in lab coats putting mascara on rabbits. Seems innocent enough, right? But sadly, the truth lies pretty far from that. Usually, animals get chemicals exposed to their skin, dripped into their eyes, injected into their bodies or forced down their throats. Other experiments include exposing them to viruses and diseases, keeping them in small cages for observation and damaging nerves or organs to study experimental substances and medicine. It is estimated that annually, more than 25 million monkeys, cats, dogs, mice, rabbits and other animals are used for experiments in the United States alone.
Luckily, some alternatives are already being used and have great successes. Replacing animal testing doesn’t mean putting humans in the spot where the animals are now. Innovation in science is going at high speed, and the quality is improving exponentially. Some alternatives include ‘In Vitro’ testing; the testing on human cells and tissues and ‘In Silico models’; computer-modelling techniques.
In Vitro testing
It amazes me every time to see how far science has come. Scientists have developed ‘organs-on-chips’. These chips are created to mimic specific features in the human body like organs and organ systems. Therefore, they can be used instead of animals for experimentation. Human derived cells are also used to grow tissue suited for testing. These cell cultures have already been very beneficial in developments in areas such as cancers, sepsis, kidney disease and AIDS, and are being used in chemical safety testing, vaccine production and drug development. On top of that, donated tissue from surgeries and people that have passed are extremely useful for research purposes. Brain tissues from people that have passed have played a key role in the research of brain regeneration and Parkinson’s disease.
In Silico testing
Computer models developed by researchers are being used to simulate human anatomy and biology. With these models, accurate predictions can be made about the reaction of the body to certain chemicals. Models of the heart, lungs, kidneys, skin, digestive and musculoskeletal systems already exist. They can be used to perform virtual experiments based on information and mathematical data that already exists.
Other methods like safely using human volunteers for, for example, micro-dosing and brain scans and testing with the use of human simulators are already being implemented.
All of these alternatives are great and very promising. But that doesn’t answer the question of why testing on animals is still a thing. In biomedical research, the gain of animal usage is very big. A lot of scientific breakthroughs are thanks to animal research and experimentation. Innovations are simply not far enough yet to replace all kinds of animal testing and still achieve the same quality and quantity of research results that is done now. New medicine requires the testing for both the beneficial and harmful effects on a whole organism for it to be considered safe for human use. The COVID vaccine for example. Animal studies contributed immensely to the scientific understanding and development of an mRNA vaccine. And therefore, saved a lot of lives. Treatments that might work in theory and in alternative testing methods might work very differently in a living organism. And therefore could potentially be dangerous to humans if not tested on other living organisms first.
There are two sides to every story, but finding the right balance is important. Animal testing serves great benefits to modern day scientific research, but is it worth the suffering of these animals? There are great alternatives out there, but they are not yet suitable for all the research that has to be done to improve and protect human wellbeing. However, scientific innovation is moving rapidly. Hopefully, in the future, animal testing will truly be unnecessary and a thing of the past.