Animal Research - How Scientists Are Working to Reduce Suffering

in #steemstem6 years ago

Hi Steemit,

As I have mentioned in other posts, I work in an immunology lab that handles lab animals. Specifically, I work with mice.
Working with lab animals is very difficult for me ethically. I am a vegetarian to reduce the suffering I put into the world, so how can I justify working with animal models?

I don't have an answer for that right now, but I do have insight into how scientists are trying to reduce this ethical burden. No one I have met likes working with mice. They may like it better than working in human clinical research, but mice are mean, and difficult, and killing an animal (either at a humane endpoint or for organ phenotyping) is never an enjoyable experience.

However, I would like to dispel the notion that scientists that work with animals don't feel compassion for the animals. Yes, I know that some people don't, and perceive these animals as being disposable. I am grateful that I do not work in such a lab. My boss refers to their deaths as sacrifices, and insists that when an animal dies, we get as much data as possible, so that their sacrifice isn't for nothing. I hope that our attitudes are the norm, and if they aren't that institutional IACUCs work to make them so.

Many people that aren't involved in animal research may not realize that we are also working to eliminate the need for animal models in our research.

The first step to accomplishing this are the three Rs of animal research: Replace, Reduce, and Refine [1].
The goal of these guidelines is to eliminate the use of animals when necessary, reduce the number of animals used, and refine our standards so that animals used in research have better qualities of life, and that research techniques used are as minimally invasive and minimally painful as possible.

Replacement with lab animals is rapidly becoming a reality. Human organs on chips are an exciting research technique that is slowly being introduced into the mainstream [2]. These are especially exciting innovations, as animal models often do not translate well to human research, which means that animal lives are lost for no reason. The human organs on a chip are microchips fitted with channels that replicate human organ structure. These channels are lined with cells and have media passed through them to emulate a living scaffold. I believe that as time goes on, these chips will be more economically feasible. We also need more scientists to invest in them and get published on their use, so that more scientists feel comfortable transitioning to these research practices.

Reduction of lab animals is another method of alleviating animal suffering until we can replace them entirely. This is done by calculating power, and only using animals as needed to reach this power. This ensures that only the minimal number of animals required to reach significance are used.

Another way to reduce usage is to minimize the animal strains maintained in the vivarium. Jackson Laboratories, a huge supplier of mice, is actually working very hard to achieve this goal. They are working with various institutions to cryopreserve mouse lines, outsource individual labs' breeding, and encourage buying mice over breeding them. Cryopreservation ensures that your strain will always be available, so as long as you plan your experiments in advance, you don't have to waste mice by continually breeding more and more for an experiment that may or may not happen [3].

Finally, scientists want to minimize pain and suffering on an individual animal level, for animals that are necessary and being used in experiments. The NIH has released a "Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals" [4]. These guidelines recommend proper housing. For example, mice cannot be left as singlets. Mice need other mice for company and stimulation. Mice also need proper absorbent bedding that they can dig in, and nestlets to tear up and make a nest out of. Larger animals, such as rats, guinea pigs, and rabbits need additional stimulation. Housing guidelines also reduce stress by laying out the appropriate number of animals for each containment type. The guidelines also lay out regulations for sanitation and handling of the mice.

These guidelines should be considered basic. Individual institutions can create additional guidelines on what kinds of research may be conducted on animals. They include restrictions and recommendations on procedures, such as anesthetizing an animal before performing a retro-orbital bleed. They may also include restrictions on the kinds of animals (many institutions are eliminating all non-human primates).

Research doesn't have a good reputation, and often for good reason (see my post on medical dishonesty and vaccines). However, we are beginning to shift more towards a compassionate attitude that aims to minimize suffering, both in humans and animals.

I hope that one day animal research will be a thing of the past, but for now, we are doing our best to treat them with dignity and compassion.

Love always,


[1] (n.d.). The 3Rs | NC3Rs. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Jan. 2018].

[2] Wyss Institute. (2017). Human Organs-on-Chips. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Jan. 2018].

[3] Anon, (2018). Mouse Cryopreservation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Jan. 2018].

[4] Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. (2011). 8th ed. Washington: National Academies Press.

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However, I would like to dispel the notion that scientists that work with animals don't feel compassion for the animals.

I actually find mice cute. They are always scurrying around and exploring their surroundings. I like to watch them. Weirdly, they don't find me so cute :-)

The establishment of more humane handling of lab animals is partly due to animal protection activists. And although the practice has improved tremendously, they are still not willing to quit their protests and radical lab devastations. I wonder what they will do once we really reach the stage of not needing experimental animals anymore.

Great post!

Maybe I was being a little mean to them in my post! :) I love watching them explore and groom each other, especially when you get the occasional acrobat that backflips off the food and water dispenser :)

We were the victims of a lab attack in the last 10 or so years. This really makes it hard to remember where all the facilities are now! I hope we can all work together for better health. Thanks for your response!

Thank you very much for sharing! Nice Post, i hope that a day wont be any more animal research.

Hopefully a lot of people will read this <3

Thank you so much. Animal welfare is something that is so important to me, but often working in science makes me question a lot of things. Knowing we are working towards a goal of minimal suffering is what keeps me sane sometimes :)

I think it is rather impossible to make perfect decisions in life (and broadly speaking all probably have some extremely foolish habits). Any actually persistent, purposely positive effort is really commendable.

However, I would like to dispel the notion that scientists that work with animals don't feel compassion for the animals.

I am really glad I work with in vitro methods, but we do have cooperations with other labs to do studies with animals if needed. I was at a meeting of such a project recently, and I can really agree with you here. It was all about maximizing the outake and minimizing the animal numbers. Also, people should know that we need ethic approvals from a government agency for each animal we use (at least here in Austria), so we can't just use them if there'd be another way to get the results.

The first step to accomplishing this are the three Rs of animal research: Replace, Reduce, and Refine.

My boss wants me to establish PBK models, have you ever heard of them? They are supposed to reduce the dependancy of animals in toxicologic/toxicokinetic studies - the aim is to simulate the distribution and metabolism of toxins in the human body based on in vitro data. Very interesting stuff.

Nice post (&nice blog), you gained a new follower!^^

Hi sco,
I would say things are pretty similar in the states, at least at my institution. You need to fill out a lot of paperwork including the procedures you're doing, how many mice you use typically, and then a justification. So we need to justify why we use mice instead of either a lesser organism (like zebrafish or worms) or in vitro methods.

As for PBK models, I don't have any experience in pharmaceutical research. My lab mostly looks at the innate immune system. Even our clinical research looks at bacterial carriage and not how drugs affect them. I did some cursory reading on it, and it seems like an interesting and useful tool!I do really enjoy modelling, so I will have to look into it further.

Thanks for the follow! I hope to be able to contribute some good material to the steemstem tag.

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