We only use animals in scientific research when there’s no alternative to doing so, and in fact it’s against the law to involve animals if there are other options.
Animal research has changed a lot over the last 150 years. For example, it’s a common misconception that beauty and household products are tested on animals, which is definitely not the case. That was banned in the UK in 1998 and across Europe in 2013, because there are better alternatives available for this type of testing.
We’re in a golden age of biology, but there’s so much about the way the body works we don’t yet understand. Around half of experiments carried out involving animals are studies of genetically manipulated mice – researchers might use this technique to understand how our genes work, both normally and in disease.
These kind of genetic studies have shed light on conditions where research had previously stalled, for example a rare genetic condition call progeria, which causes rapid aging in children. Understanding it at the genetic level has now led to the first treatment for these children.
Where researchers do need to carry out animal research, there are very strict laws in place to protect the welfare of the animals. There are three levels of licensing that have to be met, and research projects are reviewed by ethical review panels, including members of the public, who have to agree the research is both necessary and will likely benefit people in the long run.
These laws have been in place a long time – interestingly, legislature to protect research animals existed before child welfare laws were introduced. The first law was passed in 1876 with the heavy involvement of Charles Darwin.
While alternatives to animal research are coming on leaps and bounds – and we need to keep funding this important research – we’re still not at a point where we can replace animals or develop new medicines without testing in animals first, and it’s the law to do so for the safety of volunteers in Stage One clinical trials. The way animals react to new drugs is highly predictive of how people will react, and it means that the 600,000 or so people who take part in clinical trials in the UK every year are as safe as possible.