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