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How to talk with the public about animal research

By: Quinn Pauli, University of Toronto

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the crucial importance of communicating science transparently and honestly, but a major piece of the puzzle is still missing from these conversations – the critical role animal research has played in advancing science. There is a large gap in the communication of animal research; how it’s done, what it contributes to science and health advancements, which species are used and under which circumstances, and what animal welfare policies exist in research.

Science is constantly evolving, and the tools scientists use should too. With this, policies to ensure the ethical and efficient use of animals in research change with the science. Because of the enormous impact of animal research on advancing human health, the policies that guide what is – and is not – being done with animals in research should be communicated transparently to the public by researchers, institutions, and science communicators.

The importance of animals in research can be clearly seen in the field of neuroscience. Despite rapid progress in the development of imaging technologies used to study the human brain, there are gaps that cannot be filled by these techniques alone – which is where animal research comes in. Neuroscientists constantly make decisions about which type of animal and experiment would best mimic a human disease, while also considering which animal behaviours or biological measurements can be used as metrics of the disease – all this together is referred to as an animal model. Animal models can be developed in a variety of ways and can reflect many different diseases, from Alzheimer’s Disease to cancer, with the goal of better understanding human diseases and developing drugs to treat them.

For many psychiatric disorders, a lot of the symptoms – such as hallucinations or feelings of sadness – are subjective, and the biological processes underlying them are unknown. This makes the development of animal models for these disorders particularly challenging. The rodent-based models that exist have failed over several decades to translate into useful treatment options for humans despite promising results in the lab. Many scientists believe that this is because the animal models currently being used to study psychiatric disorders are outdated or misrepresentative and simply need to be improved.

One way to improve such models would be by using non-human primates, such as monkeys. One of the key problems with the animal studies that have failed to show relevance in humans is that many psychiatric disorders depend on brain functions which rodents simply don’t have. Non-human primates; however, do share many of these brain functions.

Non-human primates have been used in research since the 1940s, leading to the development of certain types of prosthetics and deep brain stimulation which has become a treatment option for patients with Parkinson’s Disease. Investing in better animal models, such as genetically modified non-human primate models, would likely lead to tremendous advancements in treating various psychiatric disorders – something that many patient advocacy groups are pushing for. However, the use of these animals in research requires very strict regulatory processes and policies to ensure their ethical and efficient use. Each animal model must be well-justified by researchers, veterinary specialists, and regulatory bodies centered around ensuring animal welfare, and animal welfare laws and regulations worldwide weigh research risks to non-human primates more heavily than those to mice because of their greater degree of similarity to humans and their complex behaviours.

These policy decisions dictate what research can be done, and in turn influences the treatment options and drugs that become available to the public. Because of this impact, animal research guidelines and processes need to be communicated clearly and honestly along with the science. In the development of genetically modified non-human primate models for example, it will be necessary for researchers and science communicators to clearly communicate what genetic modification cannot accomplish, such as creating anything resembling human consciousness in a monkey.

There is already an immense amount of misinformation surrounding the use of animals in research – oftentimes left unaddressed – stemming from pop culture and film, which can slow progress in drug development. For example, a common assumption is that most research is conducted using monkeys, dogs, and cats – in reality, these animals only comprise about 1% of animal research and must be extremely well-justified.

Public perception and policy decisions around the use of animals in research ultimately shape research progress and disease treatments that become available on the market. The result of misconceptions about animal research can be misguided policies that have the effect of impeding research. For example, a common policy put in place by many airlines as a result of public pressure is the ban of research animal transport, which has the effect of restricting animal sharing between labs, ultimately leading to wasted resources and less efficient research and animal use.

Animal models can lead to tremendous improvements in treating devastating human diseases, but only if they are relevant, justified, and ethically and efficiently used – a feat that can only be accomplished with transparent communication to the public.

Edited by participants of the 2021 Science Writing Internship program and B.G. Borowiec. Header photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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