When and why we use animals in research

The purpose of biomedical research is to understand how the human body works and how diseases develop and progress. This knowledge is used to develop safe and effective ways of preventing or treating those diseases. Animals are important at all stages of this undertaking, not just in safety testing.

Although important, the use of living animals is just one of four main research methods used at the LCSB. These methods are not alternatives to each other - they are complementary methods that are all equally valid and all contribute vital pieces to the overall picture.

  • In vitro techniques involve the study of isolated molecules, cells and tissues in a cell-culture dish containing material from humans, animals or microorganisms. This gives useful information about interactions between molecules, within or between cells, or about organ function.
  • In silico techniques refer to the use of computational models or simulations based on available data from previous experiments. Detailed models of molecular interactions and cells or organs function then allow to simulate thousands of different scenarios on the computer in a time-efficient manner. This is used for drug screenings for example, before proceeding with the most promising candidates to other research methods.
  • Research on human volunteers and populations can give very useful information about the functioning of the body during health and disease, and about the distribution of diseases in society, but is limited in its extent. In addition, clinical trials for a candidate drug are only authorized when the compound has been previously tested on animals to determine unwanted side effects.
  • Animal research is used in research and testing when it is necessary to see what happens in the whole living body, but where the use of human subjects would not be appropriate in terms of the time frames or ethics of the study.

Non-animal methods are compulsory components of the routine biomedical research strategy and make up the major proportion of research projects conducted at the LCSB. Indeed, EU law states that animals may only be used “where a non-animal alternative is unavailable”. Hence, animal research allows us to further advance in medical knowledge and treatments, where no alternative method can give answers.

Benefits of animal research

Animal research has played an important role in the development of almost every modern medicine, both for humans and animals. Despite many years of research, there are many common and incapacitating diseases that remain currently untreatable. Biomedical research can be a time-consuming process with no easy answers, but animal research helps to take us incrementally closer to cures for cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, epilepsy, and many other disorders.

Not every animal study will result directly in new therapies for patients. Firstly, researchers need to understand the specific biological mechanisms underlying a disease before they can explore treatments to target it. While it is in some cases not immediately obvious how research is relevant to alleviate human diseases, it often forms the basis for the development of new therapies in the future. As strictly regulated by the European Directive 2010/63/EU, approval of animal research can only be given if a clear need for animal research exists and there is no available alternative.  

By law, it is not permitted anywhere within the European Union to test cosmetics or their ingredients, or import those cosmetic products that have been tested on animals.