Topic summary: Animals and research


Animals and research

Published November 2016

There is a global push to reduce the number of animals used in biomedical research.
Recent scientific developments have made this increasingly possible and yet also increasingly challenging.

Are there recent scientific, legal or social developments?

The Russell and Burch principles of the 3Rs (replacement, reduction and refinement) are now widely recognised as providing a framework for minimising suffering in animal laboratory research. In 2010 the EU adopted a directive based on the 3Rs which lays down minimum standards and regulates the use of animals in research. The NC3Rs is the UK’s national organisation which leads on the 3Rs. Scientists continue to make progress in reconstructing tissues and making organ models or ‘organoids’ such as the lung-on-a-chip which can be used to test substances for therapeutic and toxic effects. Advances in neural-imaging and computer modelling of the brain have led people to question whether experiments involving primates in particular, have become obsolete. The Dutch Government has passed a motion in parliament to phase out experiments on non-human primates and has set the goal to be using only human-relevant, non-animal testing methods by 2025.

And yet developments in the sphere of genetics are leading to a contradictory drive to increase animal use in research. Countries such as China and Japan are investing heavily in research in monkeys and exploiting new genetic-engineering techniques. The EU-COST action SALAAM (Sharing Advances on Large Animal Models) runs from 2014-2018 and aims to share advances in genetic engineering and phenotyping of non-rodent mammals to develop predictive animal models for translational medicine.

Are there complex ethical issues?

The Council’s 2005 report highlights the difficult ethical questions related to the limits of what research on animals should be allowed, and the morally relevant characteristics of different animal species. There has been an increasing recognition of the challenges in implementing the 3Rs and questions about their continued applicability. There has also been a call to look beyond the 3Rs to consider issues such as the need for more comprehensive reporting and improved experimental design. Harm-benefit analysis in animal research can be morally complex, especially if the translational value of research is not always immediately clear.

Recent gene expression profiling studies have increased our understanding of the differences between mouse and human models and have brought into question the usefulness of many mouse models for studying human disease. Mice often display very different phenotypes or show different responses to drugs compared with humans. Thus to ensure efficient translational medicine, this may mean that larger or higher-order animals are required. Advances in genome editing are likely to lead to an expansion of the numbers of animals and the variety of species that can be used in biomedical research. In particular the use of genome-edited primates to mimic neurological and behavioural disorders such as autism, raises questions as to the acceptability of manipulating non-human primates given their advanced cognitive capacity and potential for suffering. Organoids offer great potential to reduce the use of animal models and, in combination with gene-editing techniques, can make very accurate human models of disease. Yet some have cautioned against researchers rushing to use organoids until they have been properly validated, and argue that they will never fully replace animal models. Diseases that involve multiple organ systems for example could not be modelled by organoids. Another potential issue is the type of tissue being created; growing human brain models or human gonads for example may raise particular ethical concerns.

Is there a potential policy impact?

There are likely to be changes to both UK and EU policy in this area in the near future and hence the Council may be able to offer a balanced consideration of the ethical issues involved which could influence public policy and legislation. A Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare has been proposed to the United Nations and policy such as this may be needed to create global pressure to enforce animal welfare.

Is it a subject of public concern?

Many people are concerned about animal rights. A 2015 campaign from the Stop Vivisection group gathered 1.1 million signatures in a bid to persuade the European Commission to ban experiments on animals and to make it compulsory to use human-relevant data instead. Opinion polls show public support for in vivo research to be dependent on there being evidence of tangible benefit, a lack of alternatives, and the use of humane techniques.

Is the consideration timely?

An EU directive is due for review in 2017 and a symposium is planned for December 2016 to discuss whether the current animal use practices can be reduced and improved. The World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences takes place every 3 years and the next conference will be held in August 2017.

Can the Council offer a distinctive contribution?

The Council may be able to offer an update to the 2005 report The ethics of research involving animals. An interdisciplinary interactive workshop held in 2016 highlighted how work in the humanities and social sciences can help understand the social, economic and cultural processes that enhance or impede humane ways of working with laboratory animals. The Council would similarly be in a position to bring together experts from a myriad of disciplines to examine the issue of animal research in light of recent developments.

Possible future work topics

This is one of the topics that have been suggested as possible project areas for further investigation by the Council. These topic summaries do not aim for comprehensiveness; rather, they are intended to sign-post some of the key considerations and to provide a starting point for discussion. Each summary includes links to relevant publications on the topic.

Possible future work topics are selected and/or revised regularly, following discussions among members of the Future Work Sub-Group and the Council. This set of topic summaries was published in November 2016.

Previous work

Contact us

Nuffield Council on Bioethics
28 Bedford Square
London, WC1B 3JS

Tel: +44 (0)20 7681 9619

General enquiries:

Press enquiries:

Sign up for e-news


Explore by topic