Pro-Test: supporting animal testing

A new campaign by Oxford students makes the case for scientific progress and medical research.

Kristina Cook

Topics Science & Tech

In recent months, medical research and animal testing has become an increasingly inflammatory topic in Oxford, England. The media interest has so far been in student fears and grievances, and the violent methods and intimidation of the animal rights protesters.

All acts of violence on the part of animal rights protesters should be denounced, and there are laws in place for this. Yet SPEAK, the non-violent animal rights group, is fully within its right to protest and make its case, however noisily.

There is little merit in being drawn into a debate about the methods of animal rights groups. This shifts the attention away from the key issues, which concern science, and our understanding of the role played by medical research in the advancement of human knowledge and welfare. Animal experimentation is an integral and necessary component of such research, and should be defended for these reasons.

With this in mind, a 16-year-old student set up Pro-Test, with the idea of defending the construction of the new Oxford animal facility. Pro-Test began with a small-scale counter-demonstration on 28 January 2006 with the slogan ‘Support Progress: Build the Oxford Animal Lab’. In reaction to the positive response from Oxford students, local business owners and other people on the day, a website was launched:

Today, Pro-Test consists of a group of students who are concerned above all with the promotion of science, medical research, reasoned debate, and human welfare.

The goal of Pro-Test is to make the case for animal testing. It is generally well known that vaccines, antibiotics, transplant surgeries, medical devices such as pacemakers, and other developments would not be here today if animal testing had not been used. But animal rights activists want to stop all current and future animal testing.

Challenging this through a defence of scientific experimentation should not be just the particular concern of Oxford students, or of scientists. It is an issue that concerns society as a whole, and goes to the heart of how we understand ourselves, and what vision we have of humanity and the capacity for bettering human welfare through the pursuit of scientific research. Life as we know it would not be possible without experimenting on animals.

Demonising scientists

Animal rights activists often demonise scientists, pretending that they are sadists who enjoy torturing animals just for the sake of it. There are countless examples of the lengths to which scientists go to minimise the suffering of animals. But the simple point is that scientists are not sadists: they act in the way that they see fit, according to principles that they share with the rest of us.

Animal research takes place not because of the laziness of scientists, or because it is just the cheapest option foisted on to scientists by pharmaceutical companies that put profits before anything else. They take place because they are a necessary component of scientific research. At the early stages of biomedical research, alternatives to animal testing exist, which is why the majority of research devoted to finding new treatments is done through chemical, biochemical, biological and pharmacological assays involving DNA, RNA, proteins, and mammalian cells.

But in the end, drugs must be tested in an animal model in order to see the effects of a compound in the entire body, not just in a cellular environment. Testing drugs in animals before doing so in humans helps researchers find potential toxic side effects, as well as understand the metabolism of drug compounds and consequent effects seen throughout the body. This cannot be replicated in cellular assays.

More, not less, testing: the lesson of thalidomide

As in all fields of human activity, errors have been made. Animal rights activists use isolated cases as reasons for stopping animal testing. In fact, looking more closely at such cases suggests the opposite conclusion: not less but more testing.

A famous example often cited by animal rights groups is thalidomide. Thalidomide was introduced in 1956 and marketed as a sedative (1). Within several years, its use had spread around the world and women began taking it to help combat the nausea associated with pregnancy. In 1961, several physicians linked thalidomide with birth defects they observed in cases of female patients who had been taking it. Very quickly, these results were confirmed worldwide, and thalidomide was taken off the market.

Thalidomide did initially pass safety tests in animals because the proper tests – namely, testing thalidomide in pregnant animals – were not performed. If a thorough battery of tests had been performed in animals, the birth defects would have been detected. Animal rights groups confuse an error resulting from an absence of testing with one resulting from conducting tests on animals. They claim, quite erroneously, that thalidomide did not cause birth defects in animals, only humans. Once the drug was pulled off the market, additional tests in animals were done, and it was found that mice, rats, hamsters, marmosets and baboons all suffered similar effects as observed in humans.

Part of the reason for this error was the lax regulations that existed at the time. However, it was also an expression of the existing state of scientific knowledge. What wasn’t realised was that a fetus might suffer side effects even if a pregnant woman did not. This was also believed to be the same with animals. Medical research has now shown this to be false, and pregnant women are advised to avoid most medications of any kind unless absolutely necessary.

The thalidomide mistake resulted in an estimated 15,000 fetuses suffering birth defects. The ones who suffered from this situation were not the animals, but thousands of women who lost unborn children. Those children who did survive suffered from disfiguring deformities. The lessons of thalidomide should be that testing procedures are never perfect, and part of scientific research is to improve them. It is also that mistakes such as these are expressions of the improvements and advances yet to be made in the state of scientific knowledge.

All of this calls for more research, which means more testing on animals, not less. This misfortune could have been prevented had we conducted thorough animal tests, including pregnancy studies. A few more animals, and countless human lives would have been saved.

Challenging the climate of fear

In contemporary debate, animal rights groups dominate the agenda. Those who oppose animal rights groups often concede on the principle, and argue only with the methods of animal rights activists. Yet the only way to challenge the climate of fear that currently surrounds the debate on animal testing is to win the argument. Confidence in the strength of their ideas will give people the will to stand up to the threats and intimidation. This can only come through a defence of animal research as a necessary component of scientific experimentation.

Pro-Test stands by the belief that the value of human life is such that these drugs should be tested on animals before they are tested on any human beings.

Kristina Cook is a DPhil student in the department of chemistry at the University of Oxford. The demonstration will take place on Saturday 25 February, at 11:30am, Broad Street, Oxford. For further information email:

(1) Rajkumar, SV (2004). Thalidomide: Tragic Past and Promising Future Mayo Clin Proc. 79(7).

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Topics Science & Tech


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