Animal testing has been a topic of public and scientific debate for a long time. A recent study seeks to shine light on student experiences and perceived barriers to ethical alternatives.

In addition to the obvious ethical issues of treating sentient beings as commodities, there are valid scientific concerns relating to using animals for human health research. Preclinical animal-based study results are frequently unsuccessful when transferred to the clinical phase.

There are also emotional impacts on students and researchers performing the experiments. These impacts range from teaching the students to see animals as commodities and creating a physical/psychological burden by going against their ideals by teaching students to disregard their own moral intuitions. In other words, advocating for laboratory animals can serve to protect their rights, but it can also protect students and support animal-free innovations. In practice, however, this has been proven difficult.

There is already regulatory support to replace animal testing in the European Union. The E.U. Directive 2010/63/E.U. embeds the 3R principles of good experimental practice (replacement, reduction, and refinement), with a focus on replacement. The Directive acknowledges that animals have an intrinsic value and that animal experiments should not be performed if there are alternatives available.

In 2016, the Dutch Government announced its commitment to phase out animal experimentation by 2025 and created the TPI (Transition to animal-free innovation) to boost animal-free experimentation alternatives. However, despite promises and scientific innovation, the number of animals used for experiments has not decreased significantly in the Netherlands nor in the E.U. as a whole. Inadequate funding, outdated regulatory requirements, and lack of data sharing are some of the barriers to the transition toward animal-free experimentation.

Education is often seen as being key in promoting this transition. In February 2022, four Dutch Universities organized the Replacing Animal Testing (RAT) challenge as part of a wider initiative to promote animal-free research. This study explored the views of the thirty-seven participating students, aged between 18-25, on the transition to animal-free innovations and their motivations to take part in the challenge.

Almost all students were motivated to participate in the challenge because of the lack of courses on animal-free innovations in their normal curricula. Most participants had not received any education on animal-free models, but all life-sciences students had been taught about animal experimentation – a few had even performed experiments on animals as coursework or training. Some students were motivated to join the challenge to learn about all the methods available (not just animal models), so they could use the best method for a given problem. Students stated that it was crucial that they become familiar with animal-free methods early in their academic careers, otherwise they might not support them in the future. Students were also motivated to participate because they cared about animals and had made life choices that reflected their values, e.g. being veg*n.

According to the students, the 3Rs provide a good ethical framework – however they noted that the “replacement” isn’t currently given top priority over “refinement” and “reduction.” They mostly believed that animal experimentation may remain a necessary part of scientific research in the future, but that it shouldn’t be the default method. This would mean that the number of experiments should decrease dramatically or be eliminated altogether, with the best method selected for scientific reasons. According to the students, challenging the “norm” of animal testing means including humans in preclinical trials which can help better pinpoint research priorities, and using animals only as a last resort.

Students generally believed that there are ethical and scientific reasons to support a transition away from animal experimentation. One participant pointed out that in vitro models which use animal-derived ingredients are not animal-free as they appear or are advertised. Most common serums come from laboratory mice (by inducing tumors in them) or from bovine fetuses (found accidentally in cows destined for slaughter). More awareness is needed to inform students and society about animal-free innovations to support alternatives that are actually animal-free.

When asked about institutions and public policies, students recognized that despite technological and ethical progress, regulatory requirements are still a key barrier. Technological changes often progress faster than legislation, and regulators still require animal testing even when alternatives exist and are being used.

According to the authors, governments have two key roles to play here. First, they can help make the validation process of animal-free methods easier. Because these methods are not as widely accepted, they are not used, and therefore their validation is difficult. Governments can play a key role in breaking this cycle. There is also an institutional culture in the scientific community which relies overly on traditional animal-based methods and is unwilling to change practices. In this environment, researchers feel compelled to use animal data (especially at early career stages) to be able to publish their research and progress in their professions.

Second, governments can play a key role in collaborating at an international level to support innovation in the transition away from animal experimentation. Some students felt that their government should take a stronger stance and ban animal testing. However, others noted that this might lead researchers to move to countries that still allow it. Students generally agreed that the validation of animal-free models was a better pathway toward acceptance among scientific and regulatory bodies.

The study highlights and reinforces the importance of legislation and institutional arrangements, and the need for these to change to support a transition away from animal experimentation. Educational courses and reimagining research designs to use animals as a last resort will also help the transition. For animal advocates, it provides useful insight into how students in related fields view the transition away from animal experimentation, and key ways that they might add to the leverage to make a change.

Original source: https://faunalytics.org