Why we use animals in our scientific research

UK law requires that all medicines should be tested in at least two different species of live animals before their use in humans.

Research involving the use of animals include the study of illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), rheumatoid arthritis, HIV, Alzheimer’s disease and many other conditions. Medicines, vaccines, antibiotics and anaesthetics have all been developed and tested first in animals.

As a result, medical research has improved and saved the lives of millions of people worldwide, and animals have benefited too.

However, it is important that animals are used for research only when it is absolutely necessary and no other alternative is available. The use of animals is closely monitored and carried out according to standards and conditions set down by the Home Office, the UK’s licensing authority. The UK has some of the strictest rules governing animal research in the world and the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 balances the needs for research with the welfare of laboratory animals.

Developing a new medicine

Scientists who want to develop new treatments use a number of different methods. They may start by using a computer to design a new molecule. Alternatively, they may test the thousands of chemicals already available, extract chemicals from natural products, or make human proteins by genetic engineering. After making the molecule and investigating how it works and what it does to cells in a test tube, scientists then need look at what it does in a real live body.

Why a living body is needed to carry out research

A complete living body is very different to conditions found inside cells in a test tube. For example, a medicine might work well on cells in the laboratory but when it is given to a human, it might be destroyed by the digestive system before it reaches the sick part of the body. Only animal experiments will discover this sort of problem. Next, safety tests are carried out, to see if the medicine causes any unexpected reactions such as a skin rash or organ failure. Animal testing also helps researchers to work out which dose to use in humans.

Examples of animal research at QMUL

Examples of research involving animals that has improved our understanding of how the human body works and how new treatments could be developed include:

  • Zebrafish share many genetic characteristics with mammals, including humans. Photograph: Jorge Duarte Estevao

    Zebrafish share many genetic characteristics with mammals, including humans. Photograph: Jorge Duarte Estevao
    Research in zebrafish has given insights into the genes associated with particular psychological diseases, including drug addiction. Zebrafish share many genetic characteristics with mammals and can help us understand how genes govern behaviour. QMUL scientists discovered a genetic mutation that increases drug-seeking behaviour in fish; variations in this gene in humans are associated with smoking and increased difficulty in giving up. This finding opens the possibility of developing drugs that target the genetic mutation to help treat addiction in humans.
  • A common anti-malarial drug, artesunate, could be used to reduce organ failure following a traumatic injury, after research showed that it is effective in treating severe haemorrhage and blood loss in rats. The drug is safe and cheap, and is now going to be tested in clinical trials in people with organ injury who are admitted to the Major Trauma Centre at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, UK.
  • QMUL researchers are studying how life experiences can shape the brain and behaviour in zebra finches. Previous research led to the discovery of a gene that is now known to be central in Parkinson’s disease. Now research led by Professor David Clayton is investigating the biochemical, molecular and genetic changes that occur when zebra finches learn to sing, which will shed light on the processes involved in learning and memory in humans.
  • Research in mice is helping researchers led by Professor David Baker to develop treatments to slow the progress of multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the myelin sheath  – the layer that surrounds the nerves in the brain and spinal cord.
  • Naked mole-rat

    Naked mole-rat. Photograph: Lorna Ellen Faulkes Photography
    World expert on naked mole-rats, Dr Chris Faulkes, is studying these unusual animals to understand why they almost never get cancer and resist the normal signs of aging, living five times longer than would be predicted for their body size.