World Day for Laboratory Animals on 24 April was originally established by animal rights activists to raise awareness for the fate of animals in laboratories. Every year on that day, they organise demonstrations and petitions against animal research. But last Friday, on behalf of 24 research institutions in Belgium, we wanted to raise awareness of the important biomedical research that would not be possible without research using animals.
Forty years of research involving monkeys, rats and mice led directly to the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines. The World Health Organization initiated a worldwide polio vaccination programme in 1988 with the aim of totally eradicating the disease, and polio is now virtually unknown in the USA and Europe.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide, with nearly 1.7 million new cases diagnosed in 2012. Experiments in mice and rat models aided the development of Tamoxifen, a hormone therapy for breast cancer in both women and men. Tamoxifen lowers the chances of developing breast cancer by 38% in high-risk women.
The latest Ebola epidemic was the worst outbreak since the virus was discovered in 1976. While there are currently no proven treatments or vaccines for Ebola, the WHO fast-tracked a number of products including two candidate vaccines and two antiviral drugs. The vaccines were first tested on non-human primates (macaques) as the model most representative of the course of human disease.
Asthma affects as many as 334 million people of all ages in all parts of the world. Animal studies contributed not only to the development of both 'reliever' and 'preventer' inhalers, but also to an understanding of asthma essential to the development of various treatments. Primates, rabbits, guinea pigs and frogs all contributed to the modern inhaler.
Research in Belgium today, too, could not exist without animal research. Specific diseases such as ALS, Parkinson's and heart disease, the immune system, fundamental brain research and infertility: the list of fields that rely on animal research is long. In part, experiments can be carried out using animal-free methods. But some complex interactions in the body are impossible to recreate in a petri dish or with a computer model. Animals are used in research only if such alternatives are not sufficient.
Every institution has an Ethical Committee that only approves an animal study if there are no alternatives, and that weighs the importance of the study against the animals' potential discomfort. Animal welfare is extremely important for research institutes, both from an ethical and a scientific point of view.
Animal research policies are based on the '3Rs': reduction, replacement and refinement. Where possible, researchers use animal-free methods; they use the lowest number of animals that is strictly necessary to obtain scientifically valid results; and they ensure that potential discomfort is kept to a minimum.
Public support for research and acceptance of the vital role of animals in developing medical treatments are of the utmost importance to science. Animal rights activists, however, would rather see an immediate end to animal research. Thankfully, Belgium does not have to deal with the type of criminal activity that has occurred elsewhere. Here, the focus lies on demonstrations and clever campaigns via social media. But in that way, the information about animal research that the public receives is one-sided. By communicating openly about the importance of animal research to scientific research, we want to create a better balanced public debate.
On Friday, 24 universities, pharmaceutical companies and research institutes in Flanders and Wallonia published a statement in support of animal research in Belgium. Together, they showed that they stand for open and transparent communication about animal research. They are committed to work for a public dialogue between science and society about why, when and how animals are used in research and about their important contribution to scientific and medical development. Compared to the United Kingdom, where openness has led to greater public acceptance of animal research, Belgium has a long way to go. To us, this statement is the start of a process to create a culture of openness about animal research in Belgium.