Animal testing is a controversial topic, and one that you've likely heard plenty about in the past. Debates over how ethical and humane it is to test cosmetics and medications on animals have waged for decades, and yet the practice still continues to this day.
Though many companies have marked themselves as cruelty-free, or otherwise indicated that they do not test on animals, until recently many researchers have had to rely on animal testing for results.
There are numerous reasons why people take stands against animal testing, from ethical standpoints to the mere effectiveness of the tests themselves. As we develop better technologies that can ensure the safety of certain products, it's becoming more and more apparent that animal testing could be a practice we can afford to lose.
Here's a quick look at animal testing, from its earliest incarnations until the debates of today.
A Brief History of Animal Testing: Spanning Back as Far as Ancient Greece
The first recorded examples of animal testing date back to ancient Greece, during the 2nd and 4th Centuries BCE. In fact, even Aristotle is known to have conducted experiments on living animals. The practice was also popular in Rome, where Galen became the "father of vivisection" for his dissections of goats and pigs.
As the centuries wore on, animal testing became a key aspect of scientific research. Louis Pasteur demonstrated germ theory in the late 19th Century by infecting live sheep with anthrax.
In the 1970s, experimental vaccines for leprosy were developed through infecting armadillos with the disease.
Despite the practice's long history, staunch opposition to animal testing is not a modern development. In fact, from the 17th Century onwards many scientists questioned whether the results gleaned from experiments on animals were worth the pain inflicted. However, the first laws drafted to regulate animal testing were not introduced until the late 19th Century.
Who is Testing on Animals?: Identifying the Industries Who Still Rely on Animal Testing
Today, many scientific breakthroughs are achieved, in part, through rigorous animal testing. Mice, rats, worms, and flies are just some of the most common laboratory test subjects.
The experiments that utilize these animals are usually geared towards genetic engineering efforts and the long-term research of specific conditions involving living tissue.
In terms of commercial products, however, the cosmetics industry is still one of the biggest culprits when it comes to animal testing. Despite growing numbers of laws and regulations across the globe that limit the use of animals in testing cosmetic products, many companies continue to develop their products in countries where the laws are more lax. China, for example, requires mandatory animal testing for cosmetic products sold on the mainland.
Often, companies who sell in countries with strict animal testing laws like China will have their products tested on animals before hitting the shelves without their knowledge.
So far, animal testing for cosmetics has been officially banned in the European Union, India, Israel, Norway, and some others. Many other countries are following suit, with the focus of banning and regulations of testing targetted predominantly on the cosmetics industry.
Common Practices: Investigating What Happens in Test Labs
Practices in animal testing differ from industry to industry, and depend entirely on the experiment or product being tested. That said, there are many recurring practices within animal testing with which opponents take issue.
One of the most common, and perhaps obvious, practices that has led many to question the ethics of animal testing is the issue of captivity. Animals used in laboratory settings often lead monotonous, limited lives in enclosed spaces. They are regularly separated from other members of their species, and may suffer a great deal of stress and discomfort as a result of their living conditions.
Further to this are the tests themselves. Animals are regularly used in toxicity tests, where they are treated with experimental chemicals either through skin contact, oral ingestion, or via injection.
It's not uncommon in behavioral experiments for animals to endure periods of food or water withdrawal. It's also not uncommon for animals to be tested with electrodes to elicit certain responses, or to deter them from engaging in specific behaviors.
These are just some of the more common practices involving animals, which have caused some activist groups to label animal testing as a cruel and unnecessary practice.
Why It Isn't Worth It: Moving Away From Animal Testing
"We are not 70 kg rats."
For centuries, animal testing has been a go-to method of assessing how safe certain products are for humans. However, animal testing is far from fool-proof.
Many scientists argue that animals are an imperfect stand-in for humans. It's been argued that no matter how similar we may function in certain regards, the conditions of a human body simply can't be accurately replicated in another species.
As Thomas Hartung, Professor of toxicology at Johns Hopkins University, once remarked, "We are not 70 kg rats."
Though there have been many successes in animal testing throughout the years, it's important not to dismiss some of the failures too. The fundamental differences between humans and animals have sometimes resulted in tragedy.
Take, for example, the panic over Thalidomide in the 1950s and '60s. The drug passed animal testing without noticeable side-effects, yet resulted in debilitating birth defects when taken by humans.
Similarly, Vioxx had a positive effect on the heart health of its test mice, but ultimately was found to cause heart attacks in human patients.
Thankfully, these tragedies have been few, but they do indicate that animal testing is perhaps not a perfect science. In the interests of creating the safest possible drugs and products for human consumption, many scientists are now turning towards technology for their testing efforts.
Alternatives to Animal Testing: Creating Technologies to End Cruelty
It would appear that there's never been a better time to phase out animal testing altogether. Thanks to massive improvements in technology, we may no longer need to rely on animals to test the safety of different medications, chemicals, or cosmetics.
Just this month, scientists developed the first computer system that can accurately detect toxicity. The system is known as RASCAR, or Read-Across-based Structure Activity Relationship. Designed in part by the very same Professor Thomas Hartung who quipped that humans are not rats, the system's AI can map out relationships between the toxicity and molecular structure of chemicals previously unknown to scientists.
The system boasts an accuracy rating of 87%, whereas animal testing is estimated at 81%. Though the difference may not sound hugely significant, it's important to note that the technology will only continue to improve, whereas the accuracy of animal testing can't match its pace.
Overall, switching from animal testing to testing through artificial intelligence has the potential to be more effective and will cost less in terms of labor, time, and money. The FDA is already underway, assessing whether or not RASCAR is the ideal replacement for animal testing.
RASCAR is just one of many potential alternatives to animal testing. Just last month, biotech startup Emulate raised $36 million in funding for their organ-on-a-chip technology. The tech could emulate the conditions and results of animal testing, without the need for using actual animals.
It's clear that there's a lucrative movement towards banning animal testing and investing in high-tech, AI alternatives. While animal testing has no doubt served the sciences well, despite its controversial status, it may no longer be necessary. Thanks to recent breakthroughs, the practice of animal testing could very well be history.