“Scientists only use animals when there is no alternative”. This is a much-repeated phrase but what does it mean? Which animals? What alternatives? Why can’t these replace all animal research? What do we find out using animals and why do we need to know this?
Babraham Institute scientists study fundamental processes in our cells: how they develop, survive, function, age and die. This basic biology underpins future medical advances, just as past research led to the treatments we receive today. The benefits will be felt in our children’s and grandchildren’s generations but without today’s basic science there will be no foundation for tomorrow’s medical research.
Mammals differ widely in size and shape but their cells and genes are broadly similar. Because of this, information from studies of mice or rats can be relevant to other mammals including humans, pets and farm animals.
Here are some examples of what we have learned from animal research at Babraham.
UK law regulates research using mammals, birds, fish, reptiles or amphibians. Alternatives must be used wherever possible. Babraham scientists use alternatives on a daily basis and often this also make our work quicker, cheaper and, to some extent, more informative. Here are some examples:
Living cells can be studied in a dish, bathed in artificial nutrients. Altering the genome of these cells to study a particular protein is far easier than in a live animal. Cell culture makes it possible to study how cells respond to chemicals, proteins or other cells and to image cell shape and movement in real time. We can even follow the movement of individual proteins inside them.
We learn a lot from simple model species. We use yeast to learn about the effect of environmental pressure on shaping our genomes, with clear relevance to how tumour cells develop drug resistance. We use yeast, nematode worms and fruit flies to help understand the ageing process.
Today’s research generates vast amounts of data. Thousands of individual human genomes have been sequenced, we can analyse multiple biological read outs from single cells and the activity of tens of thousands of genes can be determined in one experiment. Computer modelling uses these large data sets to generate new hypotheses. This sometimes avoids the need for animal experiments and data-sharing also prevents duplication of work, some of which may have involved animals
Other research at the Institute uses cells and tissues donated from medical patients or tissue banks to improve our understanding of how cells communicate, grow and die, or how age affects the functioning of our immune system.