Letter from a Queen’s researcher: Animal testing is unfairly judged

An anonymous Queen’s researcher speaks to its benefits in advancing medicine

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Editor’s note: Due to safety concerns, the author’s identity will remain anonymous.
 
The use of animals in medical research is often a topic that makes people uncomfortable. 
 
Based on how it’s portrayed in the media, it’s easy to understand why. Media sources such as PETA largely influence the public’s perception of testing, portraying it as violent, invasive, and completely unnecessary. 
 
As a current PhD candidate at Queen’s who uses laboratory rodents to investigate the nervous system, I can attest that biomedical research can’t exist in a meaningful form without the use of animal research or products.
 
Advancements in biomedical research provide a potential future for people suffering from various physical limitations, illnesses and injuries. Testing on human-like species, like animals, helps scientists find cures or provide people with diseases with a better quality of life. 
 
If these medical solutions are going to be possible, they can only exist through the practice of biomedical animal testing. 
 
Animal rights activists have suggested that human tissue, blood, or cell samples could be used to replace laboratory animals. But although these samples offer an excellent starting point for planning out studies, humans are infinitely complex as each of the aforementioned body systems interact with one another. 
 
Even if research was to transition to use human samples exclusively, we’d still require the use of animal products to properly analyze them. 
 
For example, cancer research often starts off by examining tissue samples from a cohort of cancer patients. You study the samples to see if a particular protein was expressed or if there are higher numbers of certain immune cells. This provides key information that could help guide the development of future drugs or therapeutics for cancer patients. 
 
However, to complete these experiments, you’d need to buy very specific antibodies for each target protein you’re looking at.
 
Antibodies, for the most part, are a purified product from an animal—commonly hamsters, rabbits, mice, rats or goats.
 
Although there are some antibodies produced from yeast, the selection is limited and lacks extensive scientific testing. The period of testing needed to verify these antibodies wastes time and resources that could be better spent developing treatments that save lives or ease suffering.
 
There are also instances where researchers need to grow and culture cells taken from a cancer patient for further study—a helpful technique used in the early stages of drug development for chemotherapy treatments. 
 
Out of the thousands of different cell types you can study, only a handful can grow without Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS)—a necessary substance to keep the cells you’re studying alive. However, as its name suggests, FBS comes from fetal calves. 
 
It’s easy to argue against all medical animal testing in general, but the argument fails to consider the irreplaceable role animal products play in sustaining human life. Although we might not use laboratory animals in some studies, researchers still use products that are developed from animals—like FBS.
 
Another component to the necessity of medical animal testing is evaluating the efficacy of drug treatments on smaller animals before they’re used to treat humans. 
 
If a researcher discovers a new treatment in cancer patients and wants to move forward with developing a drug, they’d have to use a mouse or rat to verify whether it works or possibly has adverse side effects. 
 
It’s simply unethical to release a drug into human clinical trials without first verifying its effect and toxicity in animals. 
 
In my experience, the scientific community is open and receptive to new and novel approaches to investigating various biomedical areas, including the use of non-animal alternatives. 
 
That said, they’ll approach new techniques with a critical view. 
 
Any scientist would be more than happy to adopt an effective alternative to animal research, but the reality is that most are already using the best model they currently have. It just happens to be an animal model. 
 
Animal research is hard and expensive. If a research facility could replace their animal colony with collections of human cells—a common alternative put forth by animal rights groups—they would. 
 
It’s easy to pick out problems with animal research, but it’s much harder to put forward practical, concrete alternatives.
 
Oversimplification by the media in medical animal testing also belittles the valuable work researchers do. 
 
At Queen’s, for example, researchers have been criticized for their supposed lack of transparency. But no researcher working for the University is being dishonest about their animal use. 
 
With PubMed—an online database showing the published work of researchers at Queen’s—every student has access to see whether ethical boundaries are being crossed in the scientific community on campus. Additionally, all researchers who use animals in their work must disclose the age and strain of their subjects, along with a detailed description of their research procedures. 
 
While the Queen’s Animal Care Committee doesn’t compile this data for public research, that doesn’t mean researchers are trying to be deceitful—these aren’t regulations we control. 
 
Animal work has largely remained shielded at Queen’s simply for the safety of its employees. While no employees or researchers have even been seriously impacted in Kingston for their research practices, the same can’t be said elsewhere. Between 1990 and 2012, 220 illegal incidents against animal researchers were reported in the U.S. This included serious crimes like bombing, arson, and death threats.  
 
I’m not ashamed of my work, and I’m beyond proud of the progress myself and my co-workers have made in advancing medical treatments. 
 
I help improve the lives of people who are suffering from various nervous system disorders. I wouldn’t put in the hours I do if I didn’t believe the rodent model I use for research wasn’t effective—if there was an accurate, animal friendly model available, I’d jump at the chance to use it. 
 
Ultimately, I work with the best resources I have access to. And I make the ethical choice of putting the lives of suffering people before the animals we test because of the good that can bring.  

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