The need for animal research
Why animals are needed for research at the Babraham Institute
“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.
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 invertebrate species. We use yeast to learn how chromosomes behave, shedding light on tumour formation and inherited disease. We use yeast and nematode worms to help understand the ageing process, and by collaborating with scientists studying fruit flies we greatly reduced our use of mice in this case study.
Today’s research generates vast amounts of data. Thousands of individual human genomes have been sequenced, 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 many animal experiments.
Other research at Babraham uses cells derived from cancer patients to improve our understanding of how cells die, or stem cells derived from human skin biopsies to study human neurons in cell culture.