Understanding Animal Research

A 2012 IPSOS Mori poll showed that although UK public support for the use of animals in medical research was high at 85%, support had fallen slightly from previous years.  Additionally, two thirds of respondents felt they were not well informed about this issue.

In May of this year, the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research was launched by Understanding Animal Research with 72 signatories, including pharmaceutical companies, Universities, and funders. The Concordat encourages these groups to be clear about how, when and why animals are used in research; to engage with the public more about animal research; and to provide opportunities for the public to learn about animal research.

Animal research describes the humane use of protected animals – all vertebrate animals including fish, birds and mammals – in experiments where the benefits to society outweigh the harms to the animal and where there is no better alternative, as determined by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act.

Many medical breakthroughs would have been impossible without using animals – insulin for diabetes, the polio vaccine, organ transplants, and chemotherapy, to name but a few. Thus, animal testing has been vital for medical progress, and will continue to be until viable alternatives are developed.

It is also vital that the correct experiments are performed for the use of animals to be justifiable and meaningful. Although prior testing in animals had shown thalidomide to be safe, subsequent testing in pregnant animals following the birth of over 10,000 children with severe congenital limb defects (Smithells, 1973) showed that thalidomide causes similar birth defects in animals (DiPaolo, 1963, Hendrick et al., 1966, Homburger et al., 1965). If these experiments had been performed before thalidomide was given to pregnant mothers, thousands of children would not have faced a life of disability.

One aspect of animal research that is often not communicated to the public is that it is highly regulated in the UK.  Animal research has been regulated since 1876, The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, was passed into law in 1986 and was most recently updated in 2013. For animal research to take place, the animal facility must be granted a certificate of designation, the project must receive a project license and each researcher must gain a personal licence from the Home Office. Additionally, all experiments are analysed by an ethics committee made up of scientists, animal technicians, lay reviewers and vets.

Licenses are only granted if: the necessary facilities to ensure the animals’ welfare and well-being are available; all staff have appropriate training; the planned experiments are necessary to answer the scientific questions and there is no alternative available. Where surgical procedures are necessary, anaesthetic and aseptic techniques are used to minimise pain and avoid infection. Surprise spot checks are frequently carried out by the Home Office, and if a researcher or animal facility is found to not be abiding by the law, they will be prosecuted.

Scientists are often reticent to openly discuss animal research with the public due to fears that they will be mis-represented or that their personal safety will be at risk. This has led to something of an information vacuum regarding why and how animal research is conducted leading to the morals and motivations of the researchers who use animals in their work to be called into question by opponents to animal research.

In a letter to his local newspaper in November 2013, Professor Mike Barer of the University of Leicester says: “… my colleagues and I see the use of animals in research as a personally challenging balance of moralities; the balance of human death and suffering against highly regulated experiments in which the animals are exposed to the minimum stress achievable in order to attain a valid result. None of us would do this if we thought there was an acceptable alternative or if we thought the research was trivial.”

Professor Barer eloquently describes how most researchers feel about animal research – no one enjoys having to do it, but feels that whilst there is no valid alternative, it is justifiable when the ultimate goal of the research is to alleviate human suffering.

Although animal research is currently the gold standard in medical research, recent technological advancements mean that this may not always be the case. The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) was set up by the UK government in 2004, to review the use of animals in research and to promote research into improving current experimental procedures and developing viable alternatives. The work of the NC3Rs and how animal research may change in the future will be discussed in next week’s blog.

Useful resources:

Understanding Animal Research Website:

Government guidance on research and testing using animals

The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research


  • DIPAOLO JA (1963). Congenital malformation in strain A mice. Its experimental production by thalidomide. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association, 183, 139-41 PMID: 14028006
  • Hendrickx AG, Axelrod LR, & Clayborn LD (1966). ‘Thalidomide’ syndrome in baboons. Nature, 210 (5039), 958-9 PMID: 4960026
  • Homburger F, Chaube S, Eppenberger M, Bogdonoff PD, & Nixon CW (1965). Susceptibility of certain inbred strains of hamsters to teratogenic effects of thalidomide. Toxicology and applied pharmacology, 7 (5), 686-93 PMID: 5866808
  • Smithells RW (1973). Defects and disabilities of thalidomide children. British medical journal, 1 (5848), 269-72 PMID: 4631040

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