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New publication demonstrates the need to replace animal models in medical research

By Helen Marston - posted Monday, 21 December 2015

Animals have been used in medical research for centuries. As far back as the 17th century, French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes convinced the scientific community that animals are mere automata – reacting like clockwork and having no feelings.

In the mid nineteenth century, French physiologist Claude Bernard, after a temporary trend against the practice, re-instigated animal experiments by convincing the scientific community that if a disease could not be replicated in animals it could not exist. It became understood amongst scientists that animal experimentation could provide both money and reputation.

Bernard is quoted as saying:


The physiologist is not an ordinary man: He is a scientist, possessed and absorbed by the scientific idea that he pursues. He does not hear the cries of animals, he does not see their flowing blood, he sees nothing but his idea, and is aware of nothing but an organism that conceals from him the problem he is seeking to solve.

Bernard did not consider his work to be immoral and was renowned for purloining the family pet. So callous and graphic was his work that his own wife, disturbed by the torturous activities in her own home, founded one of the world’s first anti-vivisection organisations.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s Harry Harlow was renowned for his work on maternal deprivation and social isolation of baby monkeys.

His ‘Pit of Despair’ experiments involved baby monkeys left alone in darkness for up to one year from birth, or repetitively separated from their peers and isolated in a chamber. These procedures quickly and unsurprisingly produced monkeys that were severely psychologically disturbed and served as models for human depression.

Fast forward to today and animals are still used in a wide range of procedures, ranging from observational studies to major physiological challenges and frequently death as an end point. Latest statistics show that around 6-7 million animals are used in Australian research and teaching every year.  Australia is the fourth highest user – behind only China, Japan and the United States and clearly the highest global user per capita. Global estimates suggest the figure for global use is around 50 million animals per year.

However just because animals have been used throughout history in medical experiments does not mean that they are the best mode of research or even necessary at all.


Proponents of using animals point to medical advances that they insist have come about from animal experiments. Opponents point to many examples where reliance on animal experiments has actually delayed medical progress, such as the development of penicillin and blood transfusions, or even shown disastrous results such as the release of Thalidomide.

Regardless of history, today science is studying diseases and drug responses on a very different level than in the 1800s and early 1900s. In the past, science was looking at traits and functions that were largely shared among species thus animals were used as surrogate humans. Science is currently studying disease and drug response at the level where the differences between individual humans are of critical significance.

According to the US Food and Drugs Administration nine out of ten drugs deemed successful through animal tests, fail in human clinical trials. Any other industry that boasts a 90% failure rate would be considered absurd (and more recent reports suggest this has now risen to 95%). Logic suggests that the drugs work in humans not because they were successfully tested on animals but in spite of being tested on animals.  

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About the Author

Helen Marston is CEO of Humane Research Australia - a not for profit that challenges the use of animal experiments and promotes more humane and scientifically valid non-animal methods of research.

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