After working in a neuroscience laboratory for over a year, I still get excited whenever I tell my friends about my research. It was focused on investigating the expression and localization of a particular protein, and my experiments frequently involved imaging brain tissue slices. This required me to harvest whole brains from mice pups. I had to first anesthetize the mice and flush the blood from their body’s circulation. I then surgically removed their brains and mounted them on microscope slides. My friends, most of whom are ‘non-bio’ people unfamiliar with such animal experiments, all respond with the same question and stunned expression: “How can you be so cruel to animals?”
The methods I used in my project are only a few examples of animal experiments being done in biological research. Animal experiments have long played a vital role in these fields. Animals have been used by renowned physicians since the 6th century BC to study human anatomy and physiology, and the understanding of disease mechanisms and the discovery of medical treatments became heavily dependent on animal experiments. While historically these experiments were undeniably gruesome, the development of ethical standards has accompanied the advancement of laboratory techniques. Although we have come a long way in establishing regulations for animal experimentation, the debate continues on its ethical and moral grounds. On one hand, scientists continue to advocate the use of animal models as other methods do not yield data that are equally good and accurate. Animal rights activists, however, argue that the benefits do not provide justification for causing animal suffering in the laboratory.
To say that we should get rid of animal experimentation altogether is to hinder the advancement of biological research. For the time being, it is practically impossible. The best we can do is to minimize the use of animal models in our experimental designs. One way would be using cell lines rather than live animals. We can also take advantage of computer simulations to study biological systems, or mimic these systems by utilizing “body on a chip” technology (a microchip containing mini, 3D-printed organs maintained by an artificial system) or 3D organoid cultures (cell aggregates derived from human tissues). However, a broad range of experiments used in behavioral, developmental, and genetic studies still could not be conducted since they are heavily dependent on the physiological or cognitive responses of a live animal. Due to such limitations, these alternatives should not fully replace animal experiments but instead complement them.
In addition, we should continuously review the regulations set by animal welfare committees and conduct regular checks on whether laboratories are abiding by these rules. These regulations are outlined in legislative laws such as the Animal Welfare Act in the US or the Animal Protection Act in South Korea. These regulations ensure that animals are properly transported, raised, and handled in the laboratory. Regular training and seminars on the proper care of animals should also be held in universities and research institutions.
We should aim to become comfortable with discussing animal experiments — with the full knowledge that these experiments are being conducted under tight regulations and are beneficial to society.