This post is a translation of a Dutch blog that was originally published on the Faces of Science website March 12, 2015.
Born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, Marieke Rienks completed her Master in Medicine in 2010 at Maastricht University. Her interest for Cardiology and Internal Medicine led her to pursue a PhD position focusing on the role of extracellular proteins in inflammatory heart muscle abnormalities. After finishing her PhD at Maastricht University she will return to the clinic to complete her training to become an internal medicine specialist. Because of her involvement with animal welfare and experience of animal research in academia, she is very avid on open and honest communication about animal research.
“I use animals to study heart failure; does that make me a bad person?”
Last year, Maastricht University came in the news because of the Labradors that are used in its heart failure research. This was widely condemned. As a Labrador researcher, you keep quiet about your work, scared to be judged. I, as a mouse researcher, experience significantly less resistance when I speak up in my environment about my heart failure research and the fact that I use mice to carry it out. Is mouse research less bad? Around twice a year, there are anti-animal research demonstrations at the university. As researchers, we receive a timely warning about this and we are also advised not to start a discussion with the demonstrators. But why is that? Is the idea that researchers and protesters are linearly opposed actually true? Don’t we all really want the same thing?
Research using animals: what does it involve?
Using animals in research is no easy thing. If you want to study something that requires animals, it is preceded by a long and elaborate process. Once you have a good research question, you have to write it up carefully. In doing so, you not only have to argue why your research idea is important, but also discuss how you want to go about studying it. Additionally, you need to clarify which research animals you will have to use, what measures you will be looking at, how many animals you will need and what the animal’s expected pain or discomfort will be and how you can maximally reduce this (e.g. with anaesthetics). This highly elaborate application is handed to a commission consisting of ten members, of which four are not affiliated with Maastricht University.
The commission members thoroughly assess the application. In case they have questions or if things need clearing up, the researcher is given the opportunity to clarify them. In case alternative methods are available, the researcher is requested to modify his or her application to include them. Applications are considered extremely carefully, and not a single aspect is overlooked. This assessment can take several months. Once it has been approved, this doesn’t mean that just anyone can go ahead and carry out the experiments. They require expertise that is taught in mandatory training leading to a personal license. If a researcher does not have this license, she will not be allowed to carry out the experiments.
Why dogs and not only mice?
Something that you have to consider very carefully while writing your application is whether your research question can actually be answered by studying certain animal species. To give a relatively simple example: imagine we would want to research a new technique to better treat atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries of the heart. To answer this question there is no point in using mice or rats. It makes more sense to use pigs, as a pig’s heart anatomy is extremely similar to humans’, both in size and structure. Similarly, there are many reasons why in some cases using larger animals is unavoidable in order to answer certain questions.
Cuteness versus intrinsic value
Most experiments are carried out on rodents. Mice and rats are generally viewed in our society as pests and are associated with disease and dirt. Dogs, on the other hand, are only kept as pets and have acquired a status of ‘companion’. Along this reasoning, my research on mice is often accepted while research in dogs faces contempt. This view is largely culturally defined and because of that it is difficult to refute. I, too, am guilty of this view. The cuter the animal, the more difficulty I would have experimenting on it. Still, cuteness should not be a factor: every living creature has its own intrinsic value. The intrinsic value of an animal is the worth we ascribe to the life of an animal or species, separate to what people associate it with. From this perspective, a mouse has an equally high intrinsic value as a dog, and there should be no difference in acceptance of research on dogs or mice. However, in practice the concept of intrinsic value proves difficult to take into account, as an animal’s cuteness is impossible to ignore.
So when do we find animal research acceptable?
If we look at the history of medicine, we can see that many big steps in the medical sciences have been made possible by the use of research animals (see figure below).
Thousands of people, for example, have their lives to thank to the vaccination against polio (child paralysis), a disease that hardly exists anymore today! Unfortunately the search for new medicines does not have a high success rate. After extensive in vitro testing and computer modelling, animal studies are necessary to ensure that drugs are safe enough to be tested in people. After these various types of pre-clinical studies and the four stages of clinical testing in healthy volunteers and patients, only 10% of potential new drugs end up as approved medication. If we set this low success rate off against the life-saving discoveries of the past, how much do we value the lives of the research animals involved? When do we find their use acceptable?
Cure for cancer
If you would know in advance that the development of a cure for cancer would cost two thousand mice and five hundred dogs, would that be acceptable? Of if it would concern other research animals, or a rarer disease, or diseases that are impacted by lifestyle choices? And to make it even more difficult: What if we also considered the quality of life of the research animals? Would our decision change if the five hundred dogs for the new cancer medicine would only experience mild discomfort while one hundred dogs would have to be very ill? Can our value judgment about the degree of ‘suffering’ in relation to the animal justify the goal of an experiment? Should we even allow a subjective factor such as suffering or discomfort to weigh heavier than dying?
These are all highly complex questions that play on my mind every day. If you ask me, we would no longer use animals for research… Only that is not realistic! A organism is so incredibly complex, and unfortunately we have not yet managed to create a robot that can model our complexity. Especially as there are so many more aspects of the workings of the human body left to discover. That does not take away from the fact that we need to remain critical, and that these are discussions we need to keep having. Because researchers and protesters are less linearly opposed than people perhaps might think.
– Marieke Rienks