The Unfortunate Necessity of Lab Rats
In the field of medical research, the use of laboratory animals has long gone hand in hand with innovation. Sharing 99% DNA in common with humans, rodents in particular make excellent subjects for the study of human diseases, and are most commonly seen in laboratories today.1 However, laboratory animals being used for medical research can be traced back to the 17th century, with laws regulating their use dating back to 1876, when the British Parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act.2 Then, as medical research grew by leaps and bounds throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, so did the animal experimentation that has become nearly part and parcel of the practice.
When researchers at Temple University successfully used CRISPR gene editing to remove HIV genes from the genomes of rats in May of this year, little attention was paid to the rats that made the study possible.3 However, reactions against animal testing has grown in recent years, with arguments centering around the apparent cruelty that takes place when an animal is subjected to injurious and often fatal medical testing. Still, it remains a centerpiece of medical research that many claim is necessary to preserve human lives. In the effort to do justice to as many living creatures as possible, who is right? Can medical research effectively be carried out on humans without the assurance of prior animal testing? Can the killing of an excess of 100 million animals a year be justified in the name of science?4
With millions of deaths for both humans and laboratory animals in the balance, the answer lies ultimately in our individual assessment of the value of human life. To be against laboratory animal testing entirely is to be for the deaths of potentially millions of people whose lives may have been spared through medical advancements. That is not to say, of course, that there is no place for humane treatment of laboratory animals, or even that alternatives should not be actively pursued. It means simply that at the present time, laboratory animal testing is an integral component of the medical research that allows human diseases to be better understood and treated.
When Temple University researchers made their breakthrough in HIV research this year, they were likely keenly aware of the toll that HIV has taken on the human population. As of 2015, 36.7 million people were living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, and over 35 million people have died from it since the epidemic began in the early 80’s. With 1 in every 25 adults living with HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, the projected cost to human life is enormous.5 There is no denying that a cure for the disease is necessary, and also that much of the research for it is being funded not just in dollars, but also in animals’ lives. This gives rise to consideration of two value systems: that of currency, and that of life.
From a economic standpoint, the cost of maintaining a mouse for the duration of its life is about $175.6 In contrast, the lifetime cost of treating HIV/AIDS is over $379,000.7 Given that most research costs will stand regardless of whether or not animals are being tested on, the physical cost of an animal’s life is well worth what it would take to preserve a human one.
The value of a life, however, is naturally beyond being quantified through numbers. While the inherent value of human value is near universally taken to be priceless, many may argue that the life of an animal is incalculable as well. However, in a country where over 160 million animals are slaughtered for consumption every year, the 26 million used in laboratory research in the US is a relatively small number in comparison. And, unlike in the meat industry, animals are kept in humane conditions and there is the potential for animals to benefit from testing as well. Vaccines for rabies, distemper, feline leukemia, infectious hepatitis virus, tetanus, anthrax, and canine parvo virus have all been discovered through the use of medical testing and have consequently saved millions of animals’ lives.8
Despite the benefits of animal testing, testing diseases and drugs on animals remains a distasteful practice, even to the researchers who carry it out. Opponents of animal testing argue that alternatives to animal testing exist, and that drugs that are tested on animals are not always found to be safe. Alternative methods, however, lack the complexity of what can be found in petri dish testing. There is, for the time being, no replacement for testing a drug on a living being. Furthermore, drugs not tested on animals carry a much higher risk of adverse effects on humans, and on babies born to pregnant women taking untested drugs. Also, in the absence of animal testing, laboratories often turn to microdosing, or testing drugs on humans in small doses, which carries the risk of spreading disease or immunity to certain bacteria and viruses to the community.
In conclusion, animal testing is viewed by many, and understandably so, as a cruel practice. However, the administration of untested and potentially lethal drugs to societies around the world is a cruel act to humans as well. The drugs and medical advances made due to the use of laboratory animals are of irreplaceable value to humankind. Unfortunately, in the absence of alternatives of equal quality, this makes them a medical necessity.
1. “Mice, men share 99 percent of genes.” CNN/Science & Space, 4 December 2002, http://edition.cnn.com/2002/TECH/science/12/04/coolsc.coolsc.mousegenome/.
2. “History of Animal Research.” Understanding Animal Research, 17 March 2015, http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/resources/animal-research-essay-resources/history-of-animal-research/.
3. “HIV genes have been cut out of live animals using CRISPR.” Time, 19 May 2016, http://time.com/4340722/hiv-removed-using-crispr/.
4. “About animal testing.” Humane Society International, http://www.hsi.org/campaigns/end_animal_testing/qa/about.html.
5. “HIV/AIDS.” World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/gho/hiv/en/.
6. “How much do pet mice cost.” Pet mice blog, 24 February 2016, http://petmiceblog.co.uk/how-expensive-are-pet-mice/.
7. “HIV cost-effectiveness.” Center for Disease Control, http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/programresources/guidance/costeffectiveness/index.html.
8. “Should Animals Be Used for Scientific or Commercial Testing?” ProCon.org, 24 May 2016, http://animal-testing.procon.org.