'A human, a mouse, a primate – each is more than the sum of its parts', emphasises Professor Clevers, a doctor and geneticist who teaches at Utrecht University, in a recent episode of Focus. 'In the end, you have to prove that your discovery also holds for the body as a whole.'
Titled 'Mouse saves lives', the episode of public broadcaster NRT's science programme zoomed in on the societal debate over whether animal testing is essential or excessive.
In vivo still indispensable
Among the general public and political establishment, there is a growing sense that animal testing is obsolete. These doctors and scientists, however, disagree, stressing that research has not yet reached a stage where it can do without laboratory animals. True, there are many applications where animal testing is no longer relevant, but in most instances in vivo testing remains essential to definitively establish the effects and safety of new drugs and scientists prefer not to perform risky steps on humans.
Drawing on case examples, Focus illustrates how the causes of various human afflictions were uncovered through animal experiments, and how medical progress on myriad fronts would have been unthinkable without animal testing. This is also the case for the spectacular strides made in immunotherapies for cancer. In fact, of all the scientists awarded a Nobel Prize in Medicine over the past decades, few could honestly say they never worked with animals in their labs.
Independent review of need for animal testing
This notwithstanding, a large section of the population feels empathetically towards laboratory animals, arguing that it is 'sad' for the animals, which never consented to being experimental subjects. Also, historical practices have contributed to a lingering bad image, whereas nowadays research with animals and its imperative is subject to stringent review and monitoring by independent animal testing committees that are publicly entrusted with safeguarding animal welfare. In the Netherlands, all animal research is required by law to undergo prior review and obtain approval from such ethics boards.
Currently, the Dutch government is furthermore considering policies aimed at supporting research by promoting alternatives to animal testing. Scientists themselves are also engineering animal-free systems for biomedical research – many at their own initiative – including here at BPRC. Already, techniques have been developed enabling scientists to grow tiny organs from human cells donated voluntarily and from tumour cells, which can be used to test new drugs in the lab. Though certainly a major breakthrough, predictions based on these mini organs do not offer enough of a basis on their own for adapting clinical therapies. Not being embedded in a circulatory and immune system, these organ models remain incomplete. As Professor Clevers underscores in Focus, you still have to prove that what you've discovered using an animal-free model also works inside a complex organism.