Ethics Lunch and learn - Animals in Medical Research

On 25th February RVC Student Animal Welfare Society (SAWS) hosted an ethics lunch and learn (ELL) discussing the implications of animal welfare and the ethical reasoning in scientific research using animals. Dr. Chris Handley, the RVC's research Named Veterinary Surgeon, (NVS) kindly gave us an insight into the role of an NVS in research and information on the current laws implemented to protect the animals used in research.

This ELL was an insightful opportunity to explore ethical complexities regarding animals in research. Personally, I was comforted learning the extent to which the NVS and welfare officer are advocating for animal welfare, and that there are many protective laws to minimise experiments and potential harmful outcomes. However, it saddened me realising many experiments are less beneficial than expected, yielding inconclusive results or incompatible outcomes with human study. The costs of harm may therefore outweigh the benefits of conducting specific research. Ethical debates surrounding the use of animals in research will continue long after the hour of this discussion. The purpose of this ELL was not to simply categorise certain research practices as right or wrong, but to reflect upon the nuances of various challenges and opportunities facing animals in research today. Increasing UK legislative force on laboratory animals may relocate these activities abroad with fewer barriers, definition and understanding of sentience for different animals. However, with shared knowledge globally and an increase in new technologies such as in-vitro experiments and computer models of research as a replacement to animal testing, we may soon have more robust research models which will see the decline in animal-based research. We may never find the best approach to minimise harm towards animals, but we can and must start questioning the need of animals’ use in research if there are alternatives on the horizon.

The key pieces of information Dr. Handley taught us are summarised below.

Legal protection of animals in research and the role of the NVS:

· Both the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA) 1986 protect animals in research.

· The NVS, along with Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer are responsible for deeming whether the research gained by using animals would be more beneficial than harm caused to them (this suggests using a deontological ethical theory approach)

· For use of more sentient animals including dogs, cats and horses, a 3rd committee is required to authorise procedures

· Project licensees are required to submit the number of animals being used and the species in their research

· There is a course for veterinary surgeons in clinical practice to become an NVS, and a Laboratory Animal Veterinary Association

Welfare considerations and how they are managed in research:

· Animals under ASPA are euthanised by injection or other methods often more humane including cervical dislocation

· Pain is assessed with quantitate measure such as pain scoring systems, similar to those used in clinical practice

· It is the role of the Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer who is an expert in specific species to assess pain and suffering of animals under their care. This can be difficult for species such as zebrafish but there are means of harm assessment. The aim for the frameworks is to be as quantifiable as possible.

Minimizing animal research:

· The three R's when trying to minimize animal research are Reduce, Replace, Refine. For example, experimentation is reduced by ensuring no research is done twice by sharing information between research organisations

· Alternative methods of research which doesn't involve animals and are increasing in use include in vitro technology and computer modelling.

Along with the above information gathered around our ethical discussion, there were some thought-provoking questions raised which were less easy to answer with factual information. I will end my reflective analysis from this ELL highlighting some of these, which I was left thinking about. We pondered upon whether drug trials should be being done on sick pets, owned, instead of breeding genetically modified animals with specific diseases. This would save many animals from a life in research yet would be harder to maintain control and variables in studies. We also questioned whether less sentient animals may experience more pain as they have no awareness that the pain may stop, unlike primates who may be able to rationalise the pain. This seems to be an uncommon opinion when it comes to animal sentience and suffering however there has been some evidence to suggest otherwise. I will leave you with the question which personally created most ethical reasoning; Is it necessary or ethical to use animals before humans in research at all, especially given that many studies are deemed void if the animal response is not transferrable to humans?

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