• A short introduction to the topic of animals in research
    A short introduction to animals in biomedical research
  • Biological Cybernetics
    The study of control mechanisms in humans, animals and computers
  • Back to the homepage of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics
    Back to the homepage of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics
Print page    

Animals in Basic Biomedical Research

By their very nature, discussions about the use of animals in research are emotionally charged and thus to a certain extent irrational. This is partly due to the discrepancy between our rational understanding as individuals and as a society of what needs to be done and our intuitive feeling of what we would like to do.

In the words of the Nobel laureate David Hubel, we often tend to take a “starry-eyed” view of nature rather than seeing it the way it really is. Whether we like it or not, cats are carnivores, and so are boa constrictors. If you own either as a pet, you will have to feed them meat if you want them to survive. While the snake owner might feel sorry for the mouse that it feeds his pet, he must choose between watching a mouse die and letting the boa starve. Analogous problems are everywhere: We kill termites before they eat our houses; we kill cats and dogs by the thousands to prevent them from overrunning us at the pound; we hunt deer before their numbers exceed their food supplies and they starve; if we do not kill rats and other pests we must put up with plagues.

Somehow we must reconcile a natural revulsion at the thought of destroying life with practical necessity. Hubel rightly cites Shakespeare’s description of mad King Lear, “the man who in pure kindness to his horse buttered his hay”, as an example of how unthinking love for animals can cloud our judgment.

To survive we must act sensibly and responsibly, and to do that we must first understand the world we live in. The same is true if we want to safeguard human health and quality of life. Here, the study of living organisms is essential, and this in turn is only possible if basic science can be carried out under optimal conditions. *

Of course, it is obvious that basic science can only be free to the extent that it does not conflict with other constitutional rights or ethical and moral standards of our society. But it is precisely the definition of these standards that is the source of the conflict. One group of citizens considers it unethical to carry out biomedical research on living organisms and another maintains that such research is indispensable in order to guarantee quality medical care and maintain our quality of life.

Differences of opinion are welcome in any democratic society. However, certain activists go as far as to claim that animal experimentation is worthless even in the context of medical research; in their eyes, pure basic research is nothing less than a crime. This attitude distorts the fact.

It would take a whole series of books to list the contributions of animal research to medicine. We take a closer look at a few of them here. Others include:

  • immunizations against polio, diphtheria, rubella and hepatitis 
  • broad-spectrum antibiotics and other anti-infective drugs that defend us against a huge number of microorganisms
  • anesthetics and analgesics to prevent and relieve pain
  • medication to treat asthma, epilepsy and mental disease
 Biomedical technology
Much of today’s basic biomedical research is carried out without animals, but some of the most pressing questions of our time can only be answered with the help of animal research. Current research with animals gives hope to the countless many who are suffering from diseases like cancer, diabetes, infectious diseases, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) or Alzheimer’s. To a large part, we owe it to animal research that our average life expectancy has risen from 52 years in 1900 to the 82 (in women) and that our quality of life has improved steadily in that time (source: German Federal Statistical Office).  

The consequences of a prohibition of animal research for society, medicine and progress are immeasurable. It is certain, however, that it would drastically lower the chances that patients with incurable diseases might witness the development of effective treatment in the foreseeable future.