Biomedical research: respect for animals, dignity for people (2009) English

Enrique Sueiro
Popularized summary of the doctoral thesis, Basque Research, 2009

Since Dr. Emil von Behring received the Nobel Prize in 1901 for his discovery of diphtheria antiplasma, tested in guinea pigs, 144 out of the 189 Nobel Prize winners in Medicine (76% of the total) received the award thanks to animal research. Many decisive medical advances which have aided humanity (vaccines, analgesics, transfusions, anesthesia and transplants) were developed through the use of animal testing.

The thesis illustrates this evolution via cases such as the discovery of the insulin hormone, in 1921, after research performed on the canine pancreas. That discovery gave the Nobel to Frederick G. Banting and John Macleod and, most importantly, that permits thousands of people living with diabetes instead of dying from diabetes.

The dissertation analyzes the positions of those supporting and opposing scientific experimentation with animals. Therefore, the study brought together the position of the majority of scientists, who emphasize the need for animal experimentation, along with the position of those who oppose this experimentation, such as Peter Singer or movements such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Aberrations committed against animals under the aegis of scientific research should be condemned. The dissertation includes past cases involving researchers whose methods for inducing psychopathologies in young monkeys revealed a willingness to cause extreme suffering, which is contrary to the human condition. The current ethical-legal framework, based on increasing social sensibility, excludes and punishes all types of cruelty to laboratory animals. Citizens need information and context in order to understand the multifaceted world of biomedical research. It seems reasonable to find a golden mean between the reactions based on emotions and arguments which omit affective aspects. By managing public perceptions with skill and honesty, we can aid in producing this harmony between data and emotions. We can combine respect for animals with dignity for human beings.

A balanced criterion is that which is known in the biomedical sector as the “Three R’s”: reduce the number of animals to a minimum, replace their use whenever possible with other reliable methods of verification, and refine their treatment and conditions. In numbers, it is estimated that 50 million animals are used each year in research; in Spain, the total number was 595,597 animals in 2005.

The dissertation analyzes British statistics on animal experimentation, which show a decrease in the number of animals used for scientific purposes, from 5.5 million in the 70’s, to 3 million in 2006. By types: rats, mice and other rodents (83%), fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds (14%), rabbits and other small mammals (0.7%), sheep, cows, pigs and other large mammals (1.9%), dogs and cats (0.3%) and monkeys (0.1%).

Some conclusions show that communication about biomedical research with animals lacks information and context, the “Three R’s” criterion is hardly known by public opinion, information determines citizenship perception, information transparency is a new trend in the scientific field and, finally, strong efforts are being made for training researchers to get abilities to know how to communicate what they know.