Biomedical research

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In this section you will find information why animals are used for research, how animal use is restricted and how patients think about the use of animals for research.

1. Why use animals?
2. Setting limits
3. What have we learned from research on animals already?
4. So why do we need to use genetically engineered animals?

5. The patients' perspective on the use of animals in biomedical research


1. Why use animals?
The human body is incredibly complicated. The different parts that make up the body interact with one another in highly complex ways. The human body is greater than the sum of its parts. Just as you can not tell the time by looking at the separate components of a clock, so often you cannot understand a disease by only examinig the different cells it affects in isolation.

A lot can be learned by studying cells or tissues cultivated outside the body. Imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning can help us to look inside the human body and see some of what is going on.

Computer and mathematical models are getting better at predicting how living systems behave under defined conditions. Experiments using simple organisms like fruit flies and nematode worms can also help disentangle some of the complexity. But all of these are much too simple to give a picture what is happening in a comlex organism-such as a human being. To do this before you try things out on people you need something that is similarly complicated. This is why animals are used for research to make progress.

Genetically engineered animals give a new and powerful way to help us understand what goes wrong and devise ways of putting things right. They have also played a crucial part in helping scientists to find out the workings of the human genome.

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2. Setting limits
Scientists and doctors are not allowed to do what they want simply because they think it might be interesting or useful. Just as research involving people has to pass extensice scrutiny from scientific and ethical committees, so any proposal to use animals for research is tightly controlled before it can go ahead.

In most countries, all animal research projects, the people who conduct them and the labs where the work takes place are individually licenced by the government. Permission to conduct the research is only granted after careful scrutiny: 

  • the research project must use as few animals as possible
  • the potential benefit from the research must be sufficient to justify the use of animals and any likely adverse effects they may experience
  • there must be no non-animal alternative
  • if distress is likely, there are proper provisions to ensure it is kept to a minimum
  • the laboratory where the research is to be carried out must be properly equipped and staff must have proper training and experience so that unnecessary suffering can be avoided
  • any particular welfare issue that may arise with animals that are genetically engineered will be carefully considered before permission is granted
  • independent inspectors who are qualified vets or doctors monitor the system and there are penalties for breaking the rules
  • if something unexpected does occur and animals are suffering, then the law requires that part of the project to be terminated and the animals put down painlessly at once.


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3. What have we learned from research on animals already?

Animal research had played a role in almost every major advance. Nearly everything we know today depended to some extent on studies on animals.

Blood transfusions, vaccines, new drugs for the treatment of cancer, heart disease, HIV and AIDS and indeed all new medicines. Many new surgical techniques are available today because of animal studies.

Millions have benefited already-now the techniques of genetic engineering have the potential to extend the benefits to many more people affected by genetic conditionsthat are currently untreatable.

Animals themselves have benefited from this research. Veterinary medicine today is much more effective than it used to be, thanks to animal based research.


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4. So why do we need to use genetically engineered animals?

Model for disease
Mice are in many ways remarkable similar to human beings. Nearly all the genes found in humans are also found in mice. This means that the mouse is a particular good model for research into complex human diseases. Finding a way to study human medical conditions often required animals with equivalent diseases or involved using drugs, surgery or other techniques to mimic the condition being studied.

With advances in genetics, it is possible to change or introduce genes that will either create the conditions in the mouse or change the operation of some of existing genes. As a result, the part they play in the disease under investigation can be studied in a way that is virtually identical, or at least much nearer, to the way these processes work in people.

Genetically engineered animals have been used to study cancer, heart disease, dementia, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis and many other serious, life threatening conditions. It is only the first mice to incorporate a particular characteristic that have to be 'genetically engineered'. Once this has happened, subsequent mice with the desired characteristic in their genome are produced by convential breeding.

Model for treatment and prevention
Once scientists have discovered what goes wrong in the body when a disease occurs, the next step is to try and find ways of preventing or treating it. Genetically engineered animals play an important role here as well.

Gene therapy is one way of doing this. Gene therapy trials in genetically engineered mice are being attempted for a wide range of disorders. The use of genetically modified animals to produce human proteins for the treatment of serious diseases is another promising development.

People living with serious and often fatal diseases want to be cures. Genetically engineered animals make the research that will produce these cures both more likely and faster.

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5. The Patients Perspective on the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research

The European Patients' Forum has published a statement on the patient’s perspective on the use of animals in biomedical research:

  • Patients are the direct beneficiaries of medical research; their voice and opinions are as important as other stakeholders.
  • Whilst we would like to see future advances made without research involving animals we believe that properly regulated animal research continues to be essential in many aspects of medical research and a vital, legally required stage in the development of treatments for patients with unmet medical needs.
    read the complete statement.

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This information is partially based on the leaflet "From bench to bedside", by the Genetic Interest Group (GIG). 


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