Help rather than hinder

Johannes Bohacek explains why it’s misleading to think we can completely replace animal testing with alternative methods, and why we should lower rather than raise the hurdles to research.
Animal experiments are subject to authorisation, and the administrative burden on researchers is high. (Photograph: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella)

Those opposed to animal testing claim that all biomedical research questions – even those concerning brain function or the immune system – can be investigated using alternative methods such as computer models or cell culture dishes. The activists calling for a blanket ban on animal testing in the upcoming popular initiative are also of this opinion. But such an assertion is incorrect; our body is far too complex.

As a neuroscientist, I’d like to illustrate this complexity with some numbers: The human brain consists of more than 80 billion brain cells. That’s ten times more cells than there are people in the world. In addition, there are just as many other, non-neuronal cells in the brain. All these cells constantly communicate with each other via 100 trillion synaptic connections. That’s as many synapses as there are stars in 1,000 galaxies. Each of the cells, in turn, is controlled by more than 20,000 genes, which produce an even larger number of proteins. These proteins regulate the cellular functions that enable brain function as a whole and control our entire lives through continuous interaction with the body.

If you can imagine this unbelievably high density of information and interactions, then you’ll understand why this system can neither be completely modelled on a computer, nor reproduced in a cell culture dish1. Such methods are important scientific tools, but they’re no substitute for animal research.

The healthy function of the brain as well as its dysfunction, which manifests in neurological and mental diseases, can only be studied in living organisms. Since these experiments cannot be conducted in humans, we must carry them out in other mammals. Mice, for example, are particularly suitable. Despite some differences, their genetic material is very similar to that of humans, they have the same brain regions and cell types, and due to evolution, these are interconnected in a similar way2.

From scientific curiosity to medical breakthrough

To understand why animal research is so important to biomedical progress, we need to remember that animal research doesn’t merely come into play when drugs are being tested for safety and efficacy. It’s relevant far earlier than this – in basic research, where the aim is to gain a better understanding of cellular and bodily processes, to discover new therapeutic targets in the first place.

A vivid example here is the revolutionary therapy for Parkinson’s disease called “deep brain stimulation”, which delivers fine-tuned electrical impulses to targeted areas of the brain. This extremely successful treatment would not exist today had the neurotransmitter dopamine not been discovered in the 1960s through basic science experiments on rats and dogs, and had the circuits involved in the release of dopamine not been deciphered in animal models. Later, basic researchers in collaboration with physicians discovered that the dopamine-producing cells in Parkinson’s patients die off. Ultimately, the interaction between animal lab and clinic meant it was possible to develop and refine deep brain stimulation – a technology that intervenes in the dopamine circuits and so suppresses Parkinson’s symptoms. This treatment is vital for more than 15,000 Parkinson’s patients in Switzerland alone, and of millions of sufferers worldwide.

That’s just one of countless examples showing how neither basic research nor animal research is an end in itself. Rather, animal testing is a means of gleaning knowledge, with the aim of advancing humanity and alleviating human suffering.

Under pressure in a one-sided debate

I’m somewhat envious of physicians, whose work for the good of people is, quite rightly, valued by society; as a researcher, I often feel I must defend my work involving animal research. Yet we animal researchers are not monsters who torture animals in the name of science. We’re driven by the desire to gain knowledge and enhance the wellbeing of humankind through our research, trying to make a small contribution to a better world. We have considerable empathy for the animals in our labs; in fact, their welfare is critical, because any pain or suffering would distort our research findings.

To obtain a licence for animal testing in Switzerland, there have long been steep administrative hurdles to overcome. And justifiably – to ensure that animal experiments meet stringent ethical and scientific standards, and to guarantee maximum animal welfare. But in recent years, in response to unrelenting pressure from animal welfare activists, the criteria for approving animal testing have been tightened yet again. This has landed a weighty administrative burden on us researchers. In my opinion, this tightening does not serve to further improve animal welfare; what it does is slow down and impair research. Indeed, research groups receive no additional resources to deal with this escalating bureaucracy. As a result, taxpayers’ money for research is used less efficiently, and cutting-edge research is in danger of migrating to countries with lower bureaucratic hurdles3. If this happens, crucial expertise will be lost to Switzerland.

«I’m convinced it would be possible to streamline the administrative procedures involving experimental licenses, while at the same time strengthening animal welfare.»      Johannes Bohacek

Besides the radical initiative to ban animal testing, soon to be put to a nationwide vote, there are more restrictions in the offing. For example, there’s discussion in the political arena of completely banning experiments on certain animal species, or experiments with a higher “degree of severity”. This is all heading in a direction that worries us researchers, as it may mean that crucial therapies for the most severe human diseases, such as cancer, spinal cord injuries or Alzheimer’s, can no longer be developed. If we only ever talk about restrictions and bans, it’s a one-sided discussion that leads to a dead end, to the disadvantage of all Swiss citizens.

What we should be discussing is how we can maintain high ethical standards while facilitating research, rather than hampering it. One idea here would be to approve, for a period of some years, established techniques in which a research group has excelled. Currently, for every single animal, we’re required to meticulously describe the experimental procedure involving a particular technique, and to submit this several years in advance.

I’m convinced it would be possible to streamline the administrative procedures involving experimental licenses, while at the same time strengthening animal welfare. Unfortunately, no such compromise is now being sought, since those opposed to animal testing are lobbying vehemently for tighter criteria, while researchers don’t have the resources to organise campaignsto streamline administrative procedures. We need to hold an open and comprehensive discussion on this – for the good of both animals and humans.