Scientists weigh in on the subject: ‘Is animal testing useless? Not at all!’

12 Jul 2018 | Back to News, Publications and Annual Reports

This week, Belgian newspaper De Morgen featured an article by prominent Belgian scientists who responded to ‘oversimplified reporting on the sensitive subject that is animal testing’. BPRC fully agrees with this article, so we hereby present it to you.

The full article can be read here (Dutch).

The article was written by Liesbeth Aerts (VIB/Catholic University of Leuven, Infopunt Proefdieronderzoek) and Professor Peter Janssen (Catholic University of Leuven), in association with Professor Patrik Verstreken (VIB/Catholic University of Leuven), Professor Roos Vandenbroucke (VIB/Ghent University) and Jeroen Aerts (VIB/Antwerp University, Infopunt Proefdieronderzoek).

The academics' article was written in response to a news story claiming that more than four out of five experiments involving animals are useless. A Dutch study was said to have shown that 85% of all medications and therapies tested in animals were found to have no effect in humans, even though they had previously proved effective in animals. ‘So, were these tests useless? No, not at all.’

International team sport

The experts pointed out in the article that the question as to what we gain from working with experimental animals is justified. ‘However, the answer to that question is not easily expressed as a number. Science is an international team sport, and researchers constantly build on each other's results. Moreover, many experiments, both involving animals and not involving animals, do not prove useful until many years later, and breakthroughs may come from completely unexpected places.’

Animal testing is essential to biomedical progress

To illustrate their point, Aerts, Janssen and their fellow authors brought up the development of immunotherapy, which has by now proved to be a tremendously powerful weapon in the fight against cancer. ‘But before immunotherapy or any other new therapy can be tested, scientists must first understand the disease process itself, and of course the mechanism of action of the healthy organ in question. This, too, involves animal testing, which is equally essential to biomedical progress.’

Closer to a new therapy

The authors do admit that it is true that not all agents that look promising in experimental animals later prove to be useful in humans. ‘After all, animals are not humans, which is even more true for cells in a test tube. Nevertheless, all these techniques and experiments get us one step closer to new therapies, because something that does not have a positive effect on the disease process of a rat or mouse is something that we don't even need to test in humans.’

Bridging the gap between experiments and therapy

The authors go on to say that everything can be improved. This is definitely true for biomedical research. ‘Scientists are working on new disease models all the time, whether they are doing so in animal models or whether they use alternative methods that do not involve experimental animals. They can help us bridge the gap between experiments and therapy more quickly, while reducing the amount of anxiety suffered by animals. Transparency regarding methods and results, both positive and negative, can only help in this respect. Reducing inaccuracies or mistakes in research projects should be another priority.’

Animal testing is important and will continue to be so

Finally, the authors emphasise that everyone wishes to make medical progress in a way that does not go at animals' expense. ‘Scientists engaging in animal testing do not do so lightly. One of the researchers involved in the Dutch study actually emphasised that animal testing is important and will continue to be so. Therefore it is highly regrettable that the public at large has now been told that the great majority of experiments involving animals are useless. No one benefits from such oversimplified reporting on such a sensitive subject, least of all the experimental animals themselves.’

Wish to get a better understanding of the use of animal testing? If so, read this article.