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Laboratory animals for science Animal testing: indispensable or are there alternatives?

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In 2019, more than 2.9 million animals were used for animal experiments and nearly 700,000 were killed for research. Some consider these animal experiments to be indispensable, others to be unnecessary. In fact, alternative methods are becoming increasingly popular. But the final abandonment of animal testing is not yet in sight.

By: Anja Bühling, Tanja Fieber, Ortrun Huber

Status: April 20, 2021

Monkeys with wired heads, mice with syringes and rats in cages: almost everyone is familiar with the pictures of laboratory animals. A topic in which the emotions boil and the points of view seem immovable. For some researchers, animal experiments are indispensable; opponents, including scientists, consider them cruel and, in view of new methods, unnecessary.

Current figures on laboratory animals in Germany

According to the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), a total of 2,902,348 animals were used for scientific purposes in 2019. This number is made up of 2,202,592 animals that were used in animal experiments and 699,756 animals that were killed for scientific purposes - for example to obtain cells for cell cultures. About 955,000 animals used were genetically modified. According to the BMEL, the number of these so-called transgenic animals is around 43 percent. Most of them were transgenic mice (89 percent) and transgenic fish (10 percent).

The experimental animals used in research into vaccines and drugs are primarily mice.

47 percent of the test animals were used for basic research and around 13 percent for research into diseases of humans and animals. About 22 percent of the animals were used in the manufacture or quality control of medical products or for toxicological safety tests. Around 18 percent were used, among other things, for training or further education or for the breeding of genetically modified animals.

Animal experiments in Germany

In addition to Munich, there are large centers with laboratory animal laboratories in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Hanover, Heidelberg, Tübingen and Freiburg - everywhere where biomedical research takes place. Not only are drugs tried out on animals, but also dialysis techniques, vaccinations, bypass operations and new joints or dental implants. In addition, animals are implanted with organs of a different species, for example a pig's heart in a monkey, in order to test whether animal organs are also suitable for humans. The total number of monkeys and half-apes used in Germany in 2019 was 3,276 at the previous year's level. Great apes have not been used in Germany since 1992.

Animal testing: Bavaria at the top

According to the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Bavaria was the leader in the use of laboratory animals in 2019. The German Animal Welfare Association had requested the laboratory animal statistics of the federal states. According to this, Bavaria has reached the highest number of laboratory animals for a single federal state to date with 572,462. The states of Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia follow on the other places.

International Day of the Laboratory Animal

April 24th is World Day for Laboratory Animals. The memorial and action day was launched in 1962 by the British animal rights activist, Muriel Lady Dowding, brought to life. In honor of her husband, Baron Hugh Dowding, she chose the birthday of the highly decorated Royal Air Force officer and later animal rights activist as the date. Lady Dowding was particularly active against animal testing in cosmetics. The Lord campaigned for animal welfare in the British House of Lords. In the week around this date, animal welfare organizations such as the German Animal Welfare Association are commemorating laboratory animals and calling for animal experiments to be abolished. The association "Doctors Against Animal Experiments" is also calling for a nationwide day of action.

EU Commission criticizes animal experiments in Germany

In July 2018, the European Commission initiated infringement proceedings against Germany due to inadequate implementation of the EU Laboratory Animals Directive. In it, the EU Commission criticizes the implementation of more than 20 articles and appendices in German law. The list of defects includes, for example, the lack of expertise on the part of the test participants as well as a lack of veterinarians and inspections during tests. The commission sees the requirements for the breeding of monkeys not implemented at all: test primates should, if possible, be the offspring of animals that are already living in captivity. According to the commission, the claim is not formulated in German law.

In 2021, the federal government decided to make changes to the approval of animal experiments in order to prevent Germany from being brought to the European Court of Justice. It should be ensured "an unequivocal, complete implementation of the EU directive on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes". Important points of criticism remained, however, say animal rights activists.

No general ban on animal experiments in Europe

Monkey in an animal experiment

In 2015, the EU Commission rejected a general ban on animal experiments in Europe. At that time, 1.17 million people signed the EU citizens' initiative "Stop Vivisection". The opponents of animal experiments wanted to achieve a complete ban on research with animals in the EU. The Commission justified its decision by stating that the existing law ultimately also aims to stop animal experiments. "We believe that animal testing should be phased out," said the Vice President of the EU Commission, Kristalina Georgiewa. Her colleague Jyrki Katainen said: "However, a total ban on research involving animals in the EU would be premature and there is a risk that biomedical research will be relocated outside the EU."

Beauty and care products that have been tested on animals have not been allowed to be sold in the EU since March 2013. This sales ban was reaffirmed on September 21, 2016.

Animal testing for regulatory purposes

The situation is different when consumer goods such as paints or pesticides are tested for their safety or drugs are to be approved for the market. Animal experiments are required by law in publicly funded science, but also by researching pharmaceutical companies. For this reason alone, they cannot be completely dispensed with. Animal experiments for such purposes are known as regulatory animal experiments and are usually carried out in a standardized procedure. But especially among pharmaceutical companies, the trend is towards alternative methods for reasons of cost. "A single mouse mutant can cost several hundred euros," explains the Baden-Württemberg animal welfare officer Julia Stubenbord.

Universities stick to animal testing

In the case of safety tests, for example for drugs, there is currently no alternative to animal testing.

However, when it comes to the distribution of funding, the focus is almost exclusively on research with animal experiments. The development of alternative methods also requires equipment, material and personnel. "There are many good approaches that fall by the wayside because they will no longer be continued due to a lack of funding," explains Stubenbord. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the universities stuck to animal experiments. This was shown, for example, by the deans' protest against a change in the state university law in Baden-Württemberg, which means that the dissection of animals as part of the training of biologists, pharmacologists and veterinarians will be eliminated. "This is also a generation problem," says Stubenbord.

More alternative methods through corona research

Corona has fueled the development of alternative methods to animal experiments: Researchers are working on artificial organ models, computer simulations and imaging processes in order to make progress in the fight against the virus. Experiments with lung or intestinal tissue can be carried out on special chips, as the neurobiologist Roman Stilling from "Understanding Animal Experiments", an information initiative of science, explains.

"With these instruments important insights have been and are being gained - but they cannot yet completely replace the immune system of an entire organism"

Roman Stilling, Neurobiologist, 'Understanding Animal Experiments'

The "Doctors Against Animal Experiments" association, on the other hand, is of the opinion that Corona shows how effective alternative methods can be. With organ-like, three-dimensional models developed from human cells, the researchers have a suitable means for experiments in their hands, explains the biologist Dilyana Filipova from "Doctors Against Animal Experiments".

Organoids instead of animal experiments?

The so-called organoids already exist in around ten organs from the lungs to the heart to the kidneys. The mini-organs are a few millimeters in size, 3D tissue models that have grown from embryonic or adult stem cells and consist of various organ-specific cell types. They develop organ-like properties. Although the organoids lack blood vessels and immune cells, they can be used to "test drugs in vitro on cell assemblies (...) that are much closer to human organs than previous 2D tissue models or animal models," says the German Reference Center for Ethics in the Life sciences.

Organoids can also help in corona research.

Organoids can also be infected with the coronavirus and then examined for their immune response. In addition, a computer can be used to determine the compatibility of a new active ingredient in comparison with existing ones better than in animal experiments, according to the biologist Dilyana Filipova from "Doctors Against Animal Experiments". Neurobiologist Stilling, however, points out that the organoids are not a complete substitute for the organism-wide immune system. "Such methods can only be a supplement to animal experiments." Nobody likes to do such experiments, but they are indispensable in the fight against serious diseases. "Animal experiments can only be carried out if there is no alternative to answer a research question," says Stilling. Every attempt must go through an official approval process.

Multi-organ chip against animal experiments

Developed at the TU Berlin: the multi-organ chip

At the Technical University of Berlin, researchers are working on replicating the human circulatory system including internal organs - on a tiny cell chip. Their aim is to connect various cultured organ tissues with one another via a nutrient solution, for example cells of the liver and skin. The long-term goal is a type of microorganism that has grown from adult stem cells and that would fit into a smartphone. For biomedical scientists this would be a perfect "test person" and in the long run it would probably also be a cheaper alternative to animal experiments.

Scientists advertise acceptance with information

For the day of the laboratory animal, opponents and supporters bundled their communication: The initiative "Understanding Animal Experiments", which ten German research institutions have been behind since 2016 to increase the acceptance of animal experiments in research and to objectify the heated debate, has an animal experiment compass released. The critics of "Doctors Against Animal Experiments" are launching a "Vote Animal Experiments" campaign ahead of the federal election in 2021.

  • Inquiry: Animal experiments with primates - one year after the VW tests were discovered. radioWelt, January 25, 2019 at 6:05 am, Bavaria 2
  • Laboratory monkey No. 30.003 - Do animal experiments have to be done? The story, October 9th, 2018 at 9:00 p.m., ARD-alpha
  • "Large laboratory animals in research: pig brains and sheep bones", radiowissen, Bavaria 2, July 13, 2017, 3:05 pm
  • "Animal experiments: What does the end of the monkey experiments mean?", IQ - Science and Research, Bavaria 2, April 26th, 2017, 6:05 pm
  • "Animal experiments on the test stand", evening show, BR television, October 4th, 2016, 6:00 pm
  • "Controversial Animal Experiments - House Search at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics (Tübingen)", IQ - Science and Research, Bavaria 2, 02/04/2015, 6:05 pm
  • "Biochip instead of animal experiment", nano, ARD-alpha, 3.30 p.m. April 24, 2015, 4.30 p.m.
  • "How now? Out of the mouse - About the informative value of animal experiments", nano, October 29, 2014, BR-Alpha, 3:00 pm
  • "Aggressive advertising campaign - Why the dispute over animal experiments is escalating", IQ - Wissenschaft und Forschung, Bayern 2, April 25, 2014, 6:05 pm
  • "Animals as a spare parts store; Animals in the service of medicine", Notebook, Bayern 2, February 24, 2014
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