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.
We are not all that different from you. With your support for ‘Kom op tegen kanker’ [cancer fundraiser] and your efforts to make sure dementia is not forgotten you are going for the same goals as we are. Just like you, we ‘move for Parkinson’s’ and we take up the ice-bucket challenge to raise awareness for ALS. We believe that in time, we can live in a world where these diseases can be treated or even prevented; but if this means we need lab animals, you hesitate.
There are many ways in which we can minimise animal suffering. A lot of genetic research is done in yeast or fruit flies, organisms with a lower level of consciousness. We often perform experiments on cultured cells, for example cells taken as a tumour- or skin biopsy from patients. But even cell cultures still require animal serum to grow, and the development of antibodies (essential in biochemical research) is currently only possible in animals.
Moreover, it is only possible to study complex processes, such as memory function or the effect of a medication on the immune system, in laboratory animals.
But animals aren’t humans, you say. So what’s the use of this research?
Almost all medical breakthroughs of the past 100 years have used laboratory animals: from the development of the polio vaccine to blood transfusion techniques, kidney transplants, HIV and breast cancer medicine and brain implants for Parkinson’s. Humans and mice may indeed seem very different, but we share 99% of our DNA and most biological processes are almost identical. Unfortunately, not everything can be translated between species, but even these differences provide information about the disease process.
Let us be very clear: there is strict European legislation about the use, care and housing of animals in research and transgressions are inexcusable. Everyone who works with lab animals receives mandatory training and for each experiment involving lab animals we need to get permission from an ethical commission. This commission, which includes experts in animal welfare, also assesses whether there are really no alternatives. People who don’t follow the rules should be punished, but there is a clear difference between animal abuse and following legal procedures that may look cruel when taken out of context.
Unfortunately, incorrect and sensational messages are circulated regularly, which prevents any type of rational debate. These communications insinuate that we can ‘do whatever we want’, and worse they presume that ‘what we want’ would be to kill animals for fun. In addition, the new bill of the Green party concerning a “laboratory animal tax” assumes we only need a small nudge in the right direction to stop using lab animals. Taxing research that is often (in)directly subsidised by the government puts the blame again with the researchers. If the government wants to invest in new alternatives, this could be done without a tax.
We feel these gratuitous accusations are very unfair. We do our research with the sincere hope to make this world a better place. To contribute a small piece of knowledge to find solutions for, in this case, medical problems. We did not become researchers because we are sadists; quite the opposite. We feel for the parents who lost their kids to cystic fibrosis, for the man who no longer recognises his wife of fifty years, or for the son who hopes his mother with breast cancer will enjoy another Christmas. For many of us, this is not an abstract hope. Just like you, we have been confronted with heartbreaking situations in which current treatments fall short.
Everyone wants medical progress, but apparently not everyone is willing to pay the price. Yet we would be nowhere without laboratory animals. Portraying us as animal abusers does not change that reality. You are completely right to demand that we perform animal research with respect for the legislation and animal welfare. But can we also receive your respect and trust in return?