Contentious altar of progress

Between 1901 and 2002, the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded on 68 occasions to scientists who had used animal experimentation. While it is hard to deny that these practices have advanced science, do they need to be used systematically when alternative methods are available?

Abandon experiments and tests on animals altogether? Animal ethicists want just that, or at least they denounce some of the conditions under which animal experiments and tests take place. Back in 1959, the zoologist William Russell, together with microbiologist Rex Bruch, developed the ‘three Rs' concept (Reduction, Refinement, Replacement). Reduction of the number of animals subjected to experiments Refinement, that is to say, diminishing pain and stress (which are known to disrupt numerous behavioural and physiological parameters). Wherever possible, replacement of animals with models that do not use living animals. The ‘three Rs' concept became increasingly feasible after the introduction of in vitro testing on cells and reconstituted tissue, as well as in silico computerised methods.

We also know that animals do not necessarily respond in the same way as humans, sometimes to the latter's detriment. In London's Northwick Park Hospital in 2006, six of the eight volunteers who had been injected with TGN1412 (an auto-immune disease treatment used to successfully treat non-human animals) suffered serious multiple organ failure. The two volunteers to emerge unscathed were the patients who had been given a placebo.

Europe and alternatives

It was to cut down on animal experimentation that the European Commission created ECVAM (European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods), in 1991, as part of its Joint Research Centre in Ispra (IT). To meet its objective of validating alternative methods, ECVAM works in collaboration with Member State administrations, industry sectors and universities. The information amassed by ECVAM, which is currently the world leader in this field, can be consulted on its SIS (Scientific Information Service) database.

Since 1991, Europe has supported numerous research projects to validate alternative methods, including three integrated projects involving more than 90 public and industrial laboratories. The A-Cute-Tox project is examining a strategy for replacing current in vivo procedures for acute systemic toxicity testing; Re-Pro-Tect is studying reproductive toxicity (fertility, embryo implants, etc.) and Sens-it-iv explores skin and lung allergies caused by a reaction to certain products, in order to develop an in vitro strategy.

European Union legislation is based on Directive 86/609 (1986), which implements the ‘three Rs' concept. Prior to revising the directive, the Commission published a questionnaire on the Internet in 2006. A total of 42 655 people answered, of whom 93 % stated that they wished to see animal welfare increased; 79% felt that the European Union did not give sufficient funding for researching alternative methods and a further 92% believed that the EU could be a world leader in promoting these actions.

Despite this, many scientists remain convinced that they would be unable to continue their often highly specialised research if they were to stop using live animals, especially transgenic animals.

Didier Buysse


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A few figures

Every year, 100 million animals are used for research worldwide. Europe used 12.1 million of this total in 2005, of which 78% were rodents and rabbits, 15% cold-blooded animals and 5% birds.

More than 60 % of all animals are used for human and veterinary medical research, dentistry and biology, and 8% are used for toxicology testing and other safety assessments.

The number of animals used to research animal diseases has increased significantly (from 900 000 in 2002 to 1 329 000 in 2005), owing to livestock epidemics and the risk of avian influenza and zoonoses.


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