When I decided to study Neuroscience, I knew nothing about animal research. Although I expected I could use an animal during my studies, I didn’t think I would have any issues with it. However, as soon as I approached my first pithed frog, my perspective shifted. In this article I will discuss why I am against animal research and what I am doing to move away from it.
During my Freshers week, I attended the introductory sessions given by the programme leads. I listened to them explaining how they structured the course, what they expected of us and general rules about being at university. Towards the end of one talk, they introduced us to what we would do during lab sessions. The words “pithed frog” popped up on the screen.
At first, I didn’t know what that was. They followed up by saying it was a brain-dead frog whose heart was still beating. After the session, I went home and called my mom; she could hear the distress in the tone of my voice. Since that day, I started wondering what would happen in that lab.
Trigger warning: I will be lightly describing the experiment I had to perform. Readers’ caution is advised.
The module leads gave us a schedule of experiments we would perform. I awaited the day of the frog practical in a state of anxiety. Although I had had the option of dropping out of this lab, I felt I needed to fully understand what research with animals could be like.
On the day of the lab, I decided not to have lunch. In the first semester, module leads allocated me in the afternoon slot, so I thought it was an outstanding idea not to fill my stomach. As a person who has been approaching veganism for a while now- check out my article My Approach To Veganism to know more about this journey- I hated the thought of harming another being.
When I entered the lab, I remember smelling something unfamiliar. Approaching the work bench, I realised it was coming from a jar filled with pithed frogs. The smell was coming from the preserving substance the frogs were in. It was not bad, but it seemed unnatural.
The experiment tested the effects of different strains on the frog’s heart, such as applying a weight, electricity and medicines. As you might imagine, the only way to do this was to partially dissect the frog. I will spare you the gruesome details, but it was not an enjoyable experience. However, the worst part of it came when my lab partner and I had to apply an electric current on the heart’s atria. Even though the frog was brain-dead, it still had the ability to move, and it twitched forcefully every time we applied the current. When we finished, we disposed of it, with its heart still beating.
The hours after the experiments were probably the worst ones. After the lab, I called my mom again. I had to talk with someone, because I felt a weight on my chest. I arrived home and immediately felt sick.
Some numbers, explanations and opinions
According to the Humane Society, over 115 million animals are exploited in labs each year. This number includes research for medicines, cosmetics, pesticides and warfare experiments.
When you look at the data, 95% of the drugs tested on animals do not pass the requirements for human consumption. Although this number might seem worrying, it depicts the complexity of the human body. I’ll explain the concept for those who are not familiar with it. Imagine a pyramid: the bottom is the molecules tested in vitro-in a Petri dish-and the top is those that make it to human usage. As fewer molecules pass to the next level of experimentation, the pyramid gets thinner, until you ultimately have drugs that can treat human illnesses. Most molecules tested do not make it to the top. The BBC website explains the steps of experimentation.
This is a Petri dish, used for in vitro studies, i.e. those that do not involve animal models, which are then in vivo studies. In vitro research is useful to study cells outside of the body, microorganisms and macromolecules such as proteins in solution. Head over to Healthline for a straightforward explanation of the differences between in vitro and in vivo.
The animal body is complex. If I showed you one diagram of the pathways a molecule goes through in the body, you would think scientists are crazy to even considering reading it. In fact, we are. There are so many variables it’s complicated, if not impossible, to remember them all. For future reference, below is the pathway of insulin, one molecule responsible for regulating blood glucose in the blood.
From: Cusabio. Head over to their website to know more about it.
Now that you’ve seen this diagram, I want you to understand this is only a minor piece of a much larger puzzle. Each single molecule that enters the body takes a similar, if not more complex route to bring about its effects. Cells in the body interact with each other in a way that is almost impossible to imitate. You can understand why most molecules do not pass the Petri dish stage of experimentation.
If a molecule gets to the animal level, you can expect it has some potential. You need to remember a drug is not administered to humans if it did not already go through the animal model. Most of the times, rats are the preferred model, as the function of its body resembles the human’s. However, with the staggering number of 95% of drugs not passing the animal step, there is constant need of new testing animals. And this is where the issue lies for me.
Even though animal research is still an important step in drug development, I deem it unnecessary in fields like warfare. One of the most fitting example is the research conducted on Guinea pigs to test the effects of nerve agents and simulated blasts. It’s my belief we should stop concentrating on wars and tackle problems such as the environment and the control of pandemics, so I consider it pointless to keep creating conflict using animals as vessels.
However, I cannot pretend it did not work in finding medicines and surgery methods that we use today. Most of us wouldn’t be here if a researcher hadn’t experimented a treatment on animals. We can’t stop animal testing altogether without an alternative that can substitute it in the biomedical field. But we can try to find solutions to working towards this goal.
What I am doing about it
When I approached the biomedical field, I had little knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes. After I researched and asked for guidance from experts in the topic, I realised the biggest problem of stepping away from animal research: there still needs to be an enormous advance in technology.
I remember asking a person in Pharmacology what she thought about animal research. Her answer was along these lines: Scientists don’t like it at all, but the issue is bigger than researchers not liking it. We need the help of computer scientists, engineers and biomedical doctors to overcome this problem.
In the previous section I underlined how complex the body is and the myriad of mechanisms occurring in each second of our lives. In vitro testing has proven useful in initial steps, but it cannot recreate the pathways of the human body. I’ll use the puzzle metaphor again. Each piece connects to the other. You need all the pieces to see the bigger picture. Similarly, each molecule entering the human body triggers unique reactions, and you need to analyse the entire body to understand if the “puzzle” gives back the correct image, i.e. the reaction you wanted.
And here is where computer scientists, engineers and biomedical doctors need to come together, a dream team that can help solve the problem of animal testing. If we want to take research from the lab to the computer, there needs to be a way to form a group with people in those specialties. Although I realise computer scientists may not be interested in biology, there are solutions already available.
Computational biology is a branch of biology that uses algorithms, models and biological data to understand biological systems. It’s the field of study that uses bioinformatics tools to predict and test biological theories.
The more I looked into what computational biology is, the more I understood this is the path I want to take. I dread labs with animals and I enjoy being on my computer, so this is the perfect middle point to combine my passion for Science and Technology. As I’m studying Neuroscience, the natural specialisation for me would be Computational Neuroscience.
Putting a good word in for researchers
As a scientist in training, the worst comment regarding researchers I can think of is: “researchers are the worst human being because they take pleasure in torturing animals”. I cannot there aren’t masochists in the scientific community, but it is unlikely a person enjoys working with research animals.
Are some videos circulating cruel? Yes, because animals are sentient beings and deserve a just treatment. But the work done in research labs has saved millions of human lives and most of us wouldn’t be here if not for a scientist that has done the dirty job. Remember, some technology available today was not developed until recently, so some did not even have the chance to learn about them during their training. They were short-sighted and did not consider animal wellbeing, but I wouldn’t take it on the single person.
Like many other problems we face today, animal research is an unfortunate inheritance of a past where people had less technology, a different understanding and felt less respect towards animal lives. We, the new generation, need to take the matter into our own hands and work towards a more compassionate approach, while also aiding the advancement of Science and Health.
This topic is too complex to discuss fully in a single article. I tried my best to explain my reasons to being against animal research and what I want to do to eliminate it. Linked below there are useful websites from which I took the numbers and percentages I cited, and from which I encourage you to expand your knowledge about the issue.