On the eve of Biomedical Research Awaerness Day (BRAD 18 April), EARA looks back at some of the important medical advances over the last year that have involved research using animals.
Among the breakthroughs reported,
that benefit both humans and animals, are:
Research using mice led to many new breakthroughs, such as multiple sclerosisresearch, at the University of Cambridge and to fight chronic pain using synthetic Botox at University College London, UK.
In surgical research on sheep at Lund University, Sweden, freeze-dried valves – later rehydrated for transplantation – were used in animal heart surgery for first time.
A team from the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), Madrid, Spain, succeeded in curing pulmonary fibrosis disease in mice using a gene therapy.
In Belgium, researchers at EARA members VIB, KU Leuven and UZ Leuven used mice to develop new antibacterial drugs.
Building on a technique developed in rats, Swiss researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Lausanne, have announced that stimulating a person’s spinal cord can restore voluntary movement in some paralysed patients (see picture).
Scientists are also developing new biomedical treatments and
techniques that replace, refine or reduce (3Rs) the use of animals in research.
A team from the University of Oxford, UK, and EARA member Janssen Pharmaceutica, Belgium, won the International 3Rs Prize using a computer model that predicts accurately the risk of drug-induced heart arrhythmias in humans.
Animal research is integral to ongoing research in areas such as spinal cord repair, stem cell treatments (Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s), gene therapy (muscular dystrophy, diabetes) and molecularly targeted cancer medicines. Historically, animal research has also led to new diagnostic tests for early treatment (cancer, heart disease); and effective treatments for serious illnesses (diabetes, leukemia, HIV/AIDS, cardiovascular disease).
The same research often helps humans and animals (treatments for arthritis, neurological disorders, organ transplants, cancer therapies) and contributes to farm animal welfare and techniques to save endangered species.
EARA Executive Director, Kirk Leech, said: “Without the use of animals the pace of advances in biomedical research would be dramatically slower.
“Finding alternative methods to animal research, such as computer models and cell cultures are extremely important, but animal testing remains the safest and most effective way to produce drugs and treatments for us all.”
EARA member Union Chimique Belge (UCB) has included the total number of animals used in research for the first time in its latest annual report.
The 2018 report of the biompharmaceutical company, based in Belgium, contains a governance section that outlines the use of animals in its biomedical research.
UCB states that a total of 17,020 animals (both internally and externally at CROs) were used: 97.6 % of all animals used were rodents, with non-human primates, dogs, llamas, mini-pigs and rabbits accounting for the remaining 2.4%.
‘With its continued commitment to the progressive implementation of in silico and in vitro technologies, UCB continues to take every opportunity to decrease the number of animals used in research studies’, says the report.
In a piece first published in the Belgian news magazine Knack (in Dutch), Prof. Damya Laoui, from the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB, an EARA member), in Belgium, together with Dr. Liesbeth Aerts and Dr. Jeroen Aerts from Infopunt Proefdieronderzoek (IPPO, also an EARA member), explain that researchers don’t take the use of animals in biomedical research lightly.
Many people are critical of animal testing, and
from an emotional point of view this is very understandable. Animals are living
beings. They have basic emotions and they also experience physical pain. As
researchers, we are not blind or insensitive to animal suffering, but neither
can we ignore the pain of almost 10 million people who die of cancer worldwide
In 2018, some 70,000 Belgians received a new
cancer diagnosis. Fortunately, their prognosis is in many cases a lot better
than for people who received the same diagnosis 10 or 20 years ago. Thanks to
advances in biomedical research – including through animal testing – the
treatment options for cancer are rapidly expanding. Nevertheless, the number of
cancer cases continues to increase as well, and the disease continues to take
To the people who claim that we can face this
challenge without animal research, we would say: please walk the talk. From our
hands-on experience as biomedical researchers, we would like to argue for greater
nuance in the debate against animal testing. Let’s bust some often heard myths:
Myth One: Animal testing is no longer necessary because we can get the
same results through computer simulations
Unfortunately, we cannot simulate
what we do not understand; that’s kind of the definition of a simulation.
Despite our increasing knowledge, there are still a lot of body processes that
we do not understand well enough to be able to fully predict them. If we could,
we would already have a solution to all diseases.
Just like animal experiments,
computer simulations are one type of tool in our experimental toolbox and they
can certainly help us in the search for answers. For example, computer
simulations are useful to screen different versions of a candidate drug
molecule, or to predict possible negative effects of a drug on a cell.
Depending on the substance and the application, additional (animal) tests will
nevertheless be required.
Myth Two: Researchers use laboratory animals because it is easier and
Researchers who work with laboratory
animals don’t do this for fun. The breeding and housing of experimental animals
is – depending on the species – time-consuming and very expensive. There are
strict rules and conditions (and rightly so!) which mean that for each test an
ethical file has to be drawn up and submitted to an ethical committee.
If an experiment can be done in a
cell culture dish, then the animal experiment simply cannot take place. Can
human samples be used instead? Also then, animal tests are prohibited.
Myth Three: Animal experiments are useless, because mice are not the
same as humans
Mice are indeed not people, but they
do show a lot of similarities. The functioning of many organs is similar and by
changing certain genes in mice, we are able to answer very fundamental
questions, for example about the interaction between the immune system and
cancer cells in a complex organism. That’s exactly why mice are used to study new
Exactly because there are also
important differences in mice and humans, researchers sometimes need to use
other animal species such as dogs or monkeys. As these are more evolved animal
species, they are only used in very exceptional situations.
We have achieved many medical breakthroughs thanks to animal experiments; think of organ transplants, blood transfusions, treatments for diabetes and AIDS, or the development of vaccines against polio, hepatitis and, most recently, the Ebola virus. More than 80% of the Nobel Prizes in Medicine also went to breakthroughs that were based on animal research.
VIDEO: In a lecture for the University of Flanders, Prof. dr. Damya Laoui, of VIB, in Belgium, underscores the need for animal research for her pioneering work into immunotherapy for metastatic breast cancer.
Animal experiments are not a perfect fix; of course they also have limitations. They shouldn’t be the default option, rather, it’s about using the right model for the right questions. Just as for other non-animal research methods, such as computer simulations or experiments in cell lines, there are advantages and disadvantages that have to be weighted.
The legislation on animal testing is therefore
built around the principle of the 3Rs: Reduce, Refine, Replace.
means that only the absolutely required number of animals is used for each
experiment. It is up to the researchers to make a statistically solid estimate
for each experiment, and up to the ethics committee to finally decide.
means that an animal test must be done under the best possible conditions, e.g.
with painkillers if necessary, and that animal welfare should be considered at
all times. This includes legally specified conditions relating to the number of
animals per cage, the control of temperature and humidity in the room, and the
provision of toys.
emphasises the legal need to replace animal testing where alternatives exist.
As researchers, we also apply the fourth ‘R’ of
responsibility. It goes without saying that there should be zero tolerance
policy of researchers who would flout these rules.
Scientists would love to have the tools
available to map the complex mechanisms of cancer metastases, for example, or
to explore new avenues for immunotherapy, without animal testing. For the time
being, however, we don’t. That does not stop us from trying to do better every
day. We keep pushing, not only for new treatments for patients, but also for
better, more refined research methods.
Belgian researchers have countered an uncritical feature interview with animal rights activists who repeated factual inaccuracies about animal research and likened scientists to Nazis.
In response to the pieces in De Morgen and Humo (both in Flemish) the scientists refuted the claims that animal experiments are unreliable, that computer simulations and artificial intelligence are fully-fledged alternatives, that scientists just “do what they want” and that animal experiments are of no use (an attack on basic research). Full translation of Humo article
“Presenting researchers as Nazis is all too easy when we all reap the benefits of modern medicine,” said an article signed by Professor Rufin Vogels (KU Leuven), Professor Wim Van Duffel (KU Leuven and Harvard Medical School) and the animal research portal Infopunt Proefdieronderzoek (IPPO).
The response is as follows:
I and a number of colleagues are disappointed that for the second month in a row De Morgen forms a platform for the dissemination of incorrect information about animal testing. This time on the basis of an interview from Humo with three animal activists. Animal welfare is of course an important topic, but it is unfortunate that these three are given the opportunity to make statements about the context in which and the reasons for animal testing in Flanders, without making any comments. Continue reading →
Basic researchers into Alzheimer disease awarded major scientific prize
Today it was announced that the 2018 Brain Prize will be awarded to Bart De Strooper (VIB, KU Leuven and University College London), Michel Goedert (University of Cambridge), Christian Haass (DZNE, Ludwig-Maximilians-University) and John Hardy (UCL) for their groundbreaking research on the genetic and molecular basis of Alzheimer’s disease.
The four researchers will share the 1 million EUR prize awarded by the Lundbeck Foundation.
This year’s Brain Prize winners have made essential contributions, in basic research, to the genetic and molecular knowledge of Alzheimer’s, mapping new avenues for the diagnosis, treatment and possibly even prevention of this neurodegenerative disorder. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, affecting approximately 30 million people worldwide. Continue reading →
In response to recent misinformation about the use of animal experiments on the French-speaking television channel RTBF (9 November) in Belgium, a group of researchers from the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Université catholique de Louvain (UCL), University of Liège, Université de Mons (UMons) and the University of Namur (UNAMUR) have written an open letter.
The letter underlines the need for animal testing in science and addresses the spread of factually incorrect information about animal testing in the media. The letter was also published in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir.
The researchers state in the letter: “Prohibiting animal experimentation or making it impracticable would deprive society of an indispensable tool for basic research and innovation in the life sciences, from which animals themselves benefit.”
If you are behind this message, and you want your voice to be heard, you can sign the open letter. In order to strengthen the message across national borders, Info Point Experimental Research aims to help the researchers to collect signatures. This letter with all the bundled signatures will be handed over to various Belgian media and serve as a starting point to consult with the government.
On Tuesday, Belgian animal rights group GAIA published video material taken during an undercover investigation at the animal research facility of the Free University of Brussels (VUB), Belgium. The footage was taken over the course of three months, and suggests that the care for the animals in the facility was inadequate. VUB announced that they will investigate the footage and cooperate with an external inquiry announced by the State Secretary for animal welfare.
Coverage of the infiltration on the website of Het Laatste Nieuws, the most popular newspaper in Flanders and Belgium.
The infiltration took place between March and June of this year. Under orders of GAIA, an undercover informant spent three months working as an animal caretaker at VUB’s Animalarium, the animal research facility at the university’s Jette campus. The six minute long video that GAIA released on Tuesday shows footage of animals in the facility, as well as recordings of conversations with employees at the Animalarium. Reactions to the video where mixed: half of comments on the article in Het Laatste Nieuws were opposed to animal research, while around 25% explained the role of animal research in biomedicine, and a further 25% were neutral on the issue.
VUB has announced that it will thoroughly investigate the footage to determine whether any of the events in the video breached national legislation or the university’s internal standards. The university understands that the video has raised concerns, and will examine the need for a strengthening of internal procedures. In addition, VUB has advanced plans for a new research infrastructure designed to provide housing for research animals with the most modern techniques, with particular attention being paid to animal welfare.
Bianca Debaets, Brussels State Secretary for Animal Welfare, has said she was shocked by the footage, and that her administration will carry out an extra inspection of the lab in question. The VUB has promised its full cooperation in the inspection. Debaets added that Brussels subsidises promising 3Rs research at the VUB and that animal research remains necessary in research, and should remain possible within a strict and well-enforced legislative framework.
A group of young, ambitious Belgian scientists have had enough of standing by doing nothing while animal research is criticised in the media. This article by Liesbeth Aerts and Jeroen Aerts was translated from the original Dutch version published in De Standaard on 26 December 2016.
‘Sadists’, ‘bastards, ‘a gang of psychopaths’, ‘worse than Dutroux [serial killer and child molester]’ … a selection of the insults directed at animal researchers that appear each time the debate about animal research surfaces in the media. One day we are awarded with prizes for our research, the other day we are cursed, insulted or threatened.
As young ambitious researchers, we care deeply about our work and also about this controversial subject. The mixed feelings of the general public indicate there is still a lot of mystery about what really goes on behind the doors of a scientific laboratory.
Spokespersons and policy makers don’t seem to understand it very well either, and the people heading our research institutes are silent as usual. Since we are doing the actual animal experiments, we are the ones at the receiving end of all of these insults. We are told to keep our head down, for fear of reprisal; but we don’t want to stand by and do nothing while we are put on trial in the press and on social media. Continue reading →
Dr Koen Van Rompay, virologist at the California National Primate Research Center, studies the Zika virus in monkeys
The Zika virus remains a prominent public health concern and a priority for the biosciences. In March, EARA spoke to Dr Koen van Rompay, who helped to develop and test the anti-viral drug tenofovir, which is currently the most frequently used HIV drug in the world. We interviewed him on the day before he and his team at the California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC), USA, infected two female rhesus macaques with Zika virus to understand how the disease progresses. We asked him about his current study on the Zika virus, why he uses primate models in his work and how he responds to critics of animal research. Continue reading →