Are there Alternatives?

Although, as explained elsewhere on this website, often there is a need to use animals in biomedical research. Sometimes there are alternatives that reduce the number of animals used, refine the way in which they are used, or even replace their need. These alternatives have gradually been developed as a better understanding emerges of the way molecules, cells and organs work together. As our knowledge increases more alternatives will undoubtedly be developed.

What are the most commonly considered alternatives to animal research? At BPRC we are often told by people who want to stop research with animals that we can instead use cells grown in cultures or use computers to make safe and effective new medicines without the need for animals.

Why don't we do that? Well, the fact is that wherever we can do it we do - and we are working to make the best use of cell cultures and computer models wherever possible.

One common alternative is to take cells from humans and grow them in test tubes. The effects of new medicines on these cells can then be studied. In fact as a result of our research we have developed similar alternatives at BPRC.

However, studying individual cells is not the same as studying organs (such as a heart, or a brain, or a liver) and it is a long way off from studying whole organisms. The problem is that, for instance with an immune system, hundreds of different cell types are involved and these are located all over the body. These cells work closely together in ways that are currently impossible to copy in a test tube. Furthermore a whole person has a very different way of dealing with medicines than the individual cells in a test tube. Human metabolism is complex, and cannot be adequately mimicked in a test tube.

The other commonly suggested alternative, the use of computers, is also used wherever possible. For some things, such as predicting exactly how a new medicine might react with its target molecule, computers can be extremely powerful allies in developing new medicines. Unfortunately, if we want to know what effect the new medicine will have on the entire person we usually have no idea of what information we should put in a computer. We simply do not know what most of the human molecules do, where they are found and how they work with each other.

How do we ensure that all reasonable alternatives are followed before we start any animal experiments? Apart from the extensive knowledge of the researchers involved, one of the main safeguards is The Ethical Committee, the committee that reviews all planned animal experiments. Every proposed experiment is carefully reviewed by this committee to see whether there are any suitable alternatives to the use of animals, and permission to start an experiment is only given if there are no reasonable alternatives.

See also Research area Alternatives.