Biomedical research is the broad area of science that is undertaken to gain knowledge and understanding of the biological processes and the causes of disease. Biomedical research is an evolutionary process that requires the input and participation of many professionals. Through careful experimentation, laboratory work, analysis, and testing, biomedical researchers look for ways to prevent, treat, and cure diseases that cause illness and death in people and animals.
Biomedical research involves the use of many tools including cell/tissue cultures, computer models, animal models, epidemiological studies, and human volunteers. People and animals are living longer and healthier lives because of biomedical research. Every person in the United States has directly benefited from the use of animals in biomedical research. More information
Laboratory Animal Science
This is the area of biomedical research that specializes in the care and study of animals used in medical research, testing, and teaching. Animals are a crucial part of biomedical research. More information
The Animals Used in Medical Research
About 95% of all animals used in research are rats, mice, and other rodents that are bred by licensed suppliers specifically for medical research. Dogs, cats, and primates together account for less than 1% of all animals used in research.
Animals are used when there is a need to find out what happens in the whole living body in order to advance our scientific understanding and develop solutions and treatments to protect the safety of people, animals, and the environment. More information
Our Animals and Society section gives a great overview of general animal use by humans and helps to put the numbers into perspective.
Why Use Animals for Research?
Laboratory animals and humans have organs and body systems that are very similar. Humans share between 70% - 90% or more of their genes with every other mammal. Many of them are also susceptible to the same diseases that can affect humans. The data derived from animal research can then be applied to humans and other animals.
The short life cycle of the animals allow researchers to study the animals throughout their entire life cycle and through several generations in a short amount of time. Researchers also have control over the animal's environment (temperature, diet, light, ventilation, etc.) to make sure the animals are kept healthy and experimental variables are kept to a minimum. More information
"How Does Animal Research Advance Medicine?" Check out this blog article by Ross Keller, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program at the Penn State College of Medicine.
Can Animals be Replaced?
Some alternatives to animal testing include tissue and cell cultures, chemical tests, computer models, epidemiological studies, advanced statistical methods, and human clinical trials. Researchers avoid the use of animals when it is possible to do so and they continue to search for alternative methods.
While alternative methods provide great resources for researchers, they do have limitations. Alternative methods, such as computer models, cannot give vital information about the safety and efficiency of a substance in a whole living system. Animal research cannot be completely replaced by non-animal methods today. More information
Who Cares for Animals in Research?
Laboratory animal veterinarians, husbandry specialists, and animal health technicians ensure that research animals receive the highest quality of care. These highly trained professionals work directly with the researchers to minimize discomfort and distress for the animals. Emergency veterinary care is available 7 days a week (including holidays) for research animals. More information
For additional information, check out the "Kids 4 Research" page on Caring for Lab Animals for more detailed information on the environment, caging, bedding, cage sanitation, and environmental enrichment.
When using animals in research, scientists must stick to the 3R's: Reduce the number of animals used; Replace animals with other methods whenever possible; Refine the experiments to ensure humane and appropriate conditions for all species. More information
The drug discovery process can take up to 15 years or more to progress from finding a disease target to getting FDA approval. Basic research, applied research (in vitro, ex vivo, in vivo), translational research, pre-clinical trials, clinical trials, and post marketing surveillance all play a vital role in discovering new drugs, treatments, and medical devices. Note: Each new medicine is tested on approximately 15 times as many people as animals. More information
Laws and Regulations
The US Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and Regulations, the Health Research Extension Act of 1985, and the Public Health Service (PHS) Policy on Humane Care and use of Laboratory Animals mandate high-quality care, housing and veterinary care for research animals. They require that all research proposals using animals are reviewed and approved by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC); that all animals are provided with adequate food, water, living conditions, environmental enrichment, and veterinary attention; that all personnel working with animals are trained; that pain and distress are minimized; and appropriate analgesics and anesthesia are used when necessary.
Research institutions are required to have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) that is responsible for monitoring and evaluating the entire animal care program. Institutions receiving federal funding must also comply with the Public Health Service (PHS) Policy and the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
The Guide gives expert advice on how to care for various species of animals and sets the framework for the humane care and use of laboratory animals. Most institutions also voluntarily have their programs assessed and accredited by the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC). Institutions with AAALAC accreditation are known for their exceptional commitment to humane animal care. More information
Animal research saves lives! Virtually every major medical advance in the past century has depended upon studies involving laboratory animals. It has led to the elimination of polio, smallpox, rabies, and measles as public health threats in the US. It has led to advanced diagnostic tests for early treatment of diseases such as cancer and heart disease. It has led to effective treatments for serious illnesses including diabetes, HIV/AIDS, leukemia and cardiovascular disease. Surgical procedures have evolved using animal models. Imaging technology and bioengineering advances such as stents, joint replacements, and pacemakers have been developed using animals. More information
Animals also benefit from the research. The lives of our pets have been enhanced with medicines and vaccines. Many animals can get the same or similar diseases as humans, so the medicines developed through animal research can often help animals as well. Research contributes to improved farm animal welfare and techniques to save endangered species. More information
The law requires that all new chemical compounds be tested for safety using a living organism. The term “cruelty-free"‚ is often misused and misunderstood because the government has not legally defined it. Companies that claim they conduct no animal testing either contract testing to an outside laboratory or use compounds known to be safe through previous animal testing. By definition, companies can market a product as "cruelty-free" if:
- They (as the distributing manufacturer) do not directly evaluate the product in animals, meaning they contract their testing to an outside laboratory.
- The testing was done in a foreign country.
- The testing was done more than 5 years ago.
- The final product was not tested on animals, but the ingredients used were tested on animals.
- They use compounds already known to be safe through previous animal testing. For example, if compound A was tested to be safe for animals, and compound B was tested to be safe for animals, then a company can combine compound A and compound B into compound C and, without further screening with animals, sell that product with a “cruelty-free‚ label.
Animal Welfare vs Animal Rights
The scientific community supports animal welfare, which means that animals must be treated humanely, and that people have responsibilities toward animals to make sure they are properly cared for.
The animal rights philosophy holds that animal species have the same rights as human beings and are morally equivalent to human beings. Animal activists believe that people should not use animals for food, clothing, research, in zoos, in circuses, etc. Some activists are even against having pets, and they believe that keeping a pet is a form of slavery.
Animal activists work to blur the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare. They use emotion, decades-old photographs, and false descriptions of research and scientists to support their position. Animal rights groups exaggerate and distort the facts about animal research. They will not acknowledge the major contributions this kind of research has made to our society and well-being.
Many animal rights groups spend time propagating a wide range of distortions, half-truths and outright lies in their literature. Speaking of Research gives a list of common myths used by animal rights extremists who are against the use of animals in research.
The Difference Between "Animal Research" and "Animal Testing"
The process of researching and designing new medicines is the majority of biomedical research. This research process is very time consuming and complicated. Animal research is just one component of biomedical research. Animal research is different than just testing a drug in an animal. Testing new medications on animals is just a minor part of animal research. For more information please read the article, Animal research is not "animal testing" by our friends at Speaking of Research.
Evidence of the Importance of Animal Research
- The NIH reports that biomedical research- which includes the use of animal models- was responsible for a recent first-time drop in the annual cancer deaths, a decline by 70% over the last 30 years in death rates from stroke, and a 63% decrease in mortality for coronary disease.
- In 1952, polio struck 58,000 people. Today that disease has been virtually eradicated by a vaccine developed using monkeys. Other vaccines (mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, smallpox) have saved the lives of millions of children.
- Animal research assisted in the development of Herceptin and Tamoxifen, two drugs that have saved the lives of thousands of women with breast cancer.
- Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) is the most common form of childhood cancers, and was once a death sentence for children. Back in 1962, the survival rate was a mere 4%, but today over 80% of the children can survive this form of cancer. (Research in Pennsylvania is helping children with ALL get treatment and live a normal life).
- Surfactant therapy (pioneered in animal models), helps premature babies to properly use their lungs to breath. In 1985, research with calves showed that giving surfactant at birth prevents respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) in premature babies. Since the use of the therapy became common in the 1980s, the number of babies who die of RDS has been reduced from 10,000 to 1,000.
- The discovery of insulin to regulate blood sugar in people with diabetes was a major development in biomedical research. Dogs were crucial to this research that identified the cause of diabetes and led to the development of insulin treatments.
- Smallpox has been eradicated from Earth thanks to research with animals.
- Heart and kidney transplant techniques and vital anti-rejection medication were developed with the use of animals.
Truths about Animal Research
- Comparative medicine is not only a study of similarities among species, but also of differences. Investigation of both has led to new discoveries of disease processes and the development of therapeutics.
- Veterinarians are part of every research team to ensure animals receive the best of care and that they are humanely treated throughout the study.
- Nearly every Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine since 1901 has relied on animal data for their research.
- Scientists are committed to seeking realistic alternatives to animal models, and are focused on the Reduce, Replace, Refine.
- The most commonly used animals in research are rats, mice, other rodents and fish. Combined, the number of dogs, cats, and nonhuman primates used in research is less than 1% of all animals studied.
- In the past 50 years, the total number of animals used in research has declined by some 30%. However, with the revolution in transgenic medicine, the number of mice, rats, and fish used in research has increased.
- All veterinary research has relied on the use of animal research. Many veterinary medicines are the same as those used for human patients.
- Federal law requires that new medicines be tested in animal models before being tested in humans during clinical trials.
- Even the most advanced computers cannot imitate physiological functions that need to be studied in order to develop new compounds and drugs that can affect an entire living organism.
- The US Animal Welfare Act has many provisions that ensure that pets do not end up as research subjects.
- Modern anesthetics, vaccines, scanning techniques (CT and MRI), and surgical techniques have all relied on animal research in their development.
- Most research animals are humanely euthanized after research so scientists can further study their tissues and organs in order to get all of the data needed to help advance medicine and science. When further tissue and organ studies are not necessary, the animals may be made available for adoption. However, it is illegal to euthanize federally owned chimpanzees for research purposes.
Animals and Medicine: The Contribution of Animal Experiments to the Control of Disease. By Jack Botting. This book offers a detailed, scholarly historical review of the critical role animal experiments have played in advancing medical knowledge- from the discovery of key vaccines to the advancement of research on a range of diseases, among them hypertension, kidney failure and cancer. Click on "Read the PDF" to view the book at no charge.
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National Institutes of Health (Office of Science Education)