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For “animal testing” we mean a scientific test that involves the use of animal testing.
The scientific experiments on living beings find a first historical confirmation within the “Corpus Hippocraticum” (end V – the beginning of the fourth century BC). In Aristotle’s treatise “Parts of animals”, we can trace a first attempt at describing the inside and outside of animals by dissection (not of the human being). In the III sec. with the School of Alexandria Erofilo and Erasistrato the human body was studied for the first time by dissecting corpses. In the “Anatomical Procedures” of Galen, the dissection modalities of numerous animal species observed by him (pigs, mice, monkeys) are instead described. Galen also, taking up the idea of the soul of Aristotle, writes “The Usefulness of the Parts of the Body” claiming that the animal in the completeness of its body structure encloses its soul.
Since then, many steps forward have been made, and animal experiments have led to important scientific discoveries and a more in-depth study of the immune system. Revolutionary discoveries were those of insulin for diabetes, treatment for leprosy, yellow fever, and typhoid.
Animal experiments can be dual: that of mere observation of behavior and that of application of models to understand a biological characteristic of another species.
After the Nazi atrocities and the Nuremberg trial, experiments on human beings are forbidden, because in the years of the Nazis the atrocities suffered above all by Jews exceeded any ethical limits. The Helsinki Declaration (1964) and the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects in Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1974) and the resulting Belmont Report (1979) set the goal of creating protection about research on human beings by drawing up principles of respect, charity, and justice.
From the principles enunciated in Helsinki, it clearly shows the will to protect the human being.
For this reason, it is emphasized that biomedical research cannot be conducted on human subjects except in cases where the importance of the research itself, and its objective, is not proportionate to the risk to which the human subject is exposed.
This is why more and more often humans have been replaced with animals to conduct more high-risk experiments. Over the past century, however, the question has been raised about the ethics of animal experiments. In particular, the first discussion on this subject was carried out by Charles Hume and William Russell at the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW)-tariff in 1957 and was developed by W. Russell and R.L. Burch in 1959 in their book: The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique.
Russel and Burch elaborated on the “3R” strategy: reduction, refinement, and replacement.
For the two studies, it was necessary to drastically reduce the number of animals that adjusted for scientific research (reduction). For the animals to which the experimental treatment administered was necessary, during the experiment, the reduction of pain and state of anxiety was triggered by the experiment itself (refinement). Also to this last end, the “sentient” animals considered “superior,” for the two scholars, had to be replaced with “inferior” animals (replacement) (Russel and Burch 1959).
By “replacement” we must mean: “Any scientific method that uses non-sentient material that can replace the use of conscious living vertebrates in animal experimentation.” During the experiments, two hypotheses of “substitution” are considered: absolute or partial with the substitution of the animal or with its partial use without exposure to the problem that could generate stress.
Subsequent studies sought to focus their attention on the understanding of animal sensibility that in the past had not been adequately considered and which today is believed to be more protected (Ferdowsian and Beck 2011). A growing number of studies on the emotion and cognition of animals have meant that scientists could say with certainty that animals experience pain and anguish.
Stress situations can be triggered by experiments involving invasive procedures, diseases, and deprivation of basic physiological needs. Even the environment in which the animals live strongly affects their quality of life and therefore their well-being. Social deprivation and the loss of natural behavior can trigger a sense of anxiety.
This stress situation also has a significant impact on the result of the research carried out by scholars who often, to achieve a satisfactory result, are forced to use a large number of animals.
As pointed out by W. Lane-Petter in 1958 in his text “Laboratory Animals of High Quality,” although, for equal needs, the work of researchers varies greatly from country to country. The number of research centers and universities is not always the same. The development of the pharmaceutical industry and the investments that each country can make in the sector also greatly affect the quality of the work performed. This means that the number of animals used varies from country to country (Lane-Petter 1958).
Within the development of the animal, tests are inserted a particular type of experimentation that involves the transplantation of cells, tissues, or organs from one animal to another of different species: xenotransplants. These types of intraspecies transplants began in the 1960s and concerned in particular the porcine species and nonhuman primates (Platt and Bach 1991).
We often hear of “genome engineering,” the practice of inserting human genes into the animal gene to produce cells, tissues, or organs that the human body does not reject. We try to study the immunological barrier because it intervenes when a xenotransplant is performed and rejects the organ that the subject has received inside him, considering it foreign to himself.
Another risk factor is the transmission of a pathogen, such as the porcine retrovirus “porcine endogenous retroviruses” or “PERV.”
Further development of animal testing concerns animal cloning. To obtain cloning, genetic manipulation is structured that transfers the somatic cell nucleus (SCNT) of the organism to be cloned into an egg cell of the same non-fertilized species. An embryo is thus obtained which is implanted in a “surrogate mother.” The first tests already in the 1990s led Ian Wilmut, of the Roslin Institute of Edinburgh in Scotland, to the cloning of the famous sheep “Dolly” (1996).
Also, for this cloning technique is used in animal husbandry to improve the quality of the animals that are raised. Also, for this reason, EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, has been attentive in the field of food safety and is concerned about the uncertainty of the impact on human health and of animals if cloning is systematically used for food purposes. The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (GEE) agrees and already in 2008 seemed to express strong doubts about the ethics of cloning animals especially if used for food purposes.
The ongoing debate raises the question of what the limit that science must not overcome in terms of animal tests, genetic manipulations, and xenotransplants. The difficulty of establishing this limit often depends on the sensitivity of individuals and of the civil and religious communities in which this problem is discussed. For this reason, too, this limit often changes according to the state that is analyzed and modified over time.
In the present, and even more so in the future, it will increasingly come to the end of experiments with animals, leaving room for experiments conducted thanks to the use of new technologies. Analysis technologies, computer models, cell cultures, and in vitro, nanotechnology, would help to achieve this important goal. New chromosomal techniques, for example, replace animals in drug dose tests.
Computers, new software, and specialized computer models that can be used and created shortly will increasingly help develop an understanding of biology. Thanks to their use, the practice of vivisection can cease. Moreover based on various scientific results, especially in branches such as neurology and vascular diseases, there is a question of doubting the reliability of animal experimentation since the same research experiments then replicated on humans have not had the same effects. This is because obviously the same diseases administered to animals do not always imitate the pathological processes and the responses to treatment on humans.
For the study of vaccines, an in vitro surrogate human immune system was also created to obtain surely more reliable results than previous research and, above all, the replacement of animals.
However the overwhelming part of the scientific community, from the members of the Royal Society to those of the National Academy of Sciences, believes that it is not yet possible to totally replace the technology for the use of animals since it has not yet succeeded, even with the most sophisticated models, to totally reproduce a living model.
Xenografts will become important for clinical emergencies and in the absence of human organ donors.
At the core of the ethical debate, these are the following questions: is it right to imitate even cells of different origins within a human body? What is the real limit beyond which science cannot enter by ethical-moral principles?
Cloning has raised an ethical debate concerning its application for the human race. Genetic engineering has placed the study of the human genome at the center of this topic. The ethical debate on the manipulation of human DNA has seen bioethics scholars place themselves in a position of firm condemnation in particular when we speak of “eugenics,” that is, of wanting to modify the characteristics of the human being through such scientific practices. The study and experiments on human embryos are the focus of utmost attention. In many countries including the USA and Italy, these types of experiments are prohibited by law. On the contrary, in Japan much more has been done with the testing of human-animal embryos to obtain human organs suitable for transplants.
The human being carries out tests on animals to observe their behavior and to understand a biological characteristic of another species. The results of these tests are used by biomedical science in order to always seek new solutions to specific problems, especially of a healthy nature. The tests that take place on animals are often higher risk tests and, after the Declaration of Helsinki of 1964 elaborated by the Word medical Association (WMA), it is not possible to carry them out on humans. The ethical debate that surrounds this topic today is particularly heated because it tries to delineate the limits within which new technologies and sciences are right or wrong to go. Vivisection, manipulation of the human genome, genetic engineering, cloning, xenotransplants, and GMOs are among the most debated topics among scholars.
- Lane-Petter, W. (1958). Laboratory animals of high quality. ICLA Memorandum.Google Scholar
- Russell, W. M. S., & Burch, R. L. (1959). The principles of humane experimental technique. London: Methuen.Google Scholar
- World Medical Association. (1964). Declaration of Helsinki. 18th WMA General Assembly. Helsinki. http://history.nih.gov/research/downloads/helsinki.pdf