The Use of Animal Models in Medical Research is Superior to Non-Animal Alternatives


Lab Animal Model [Untiled image of a lab mouse in gloved hand] Retrieved April 7, 2015 from

Lab Animal Model
[Untiled image of a lab mouse in gloved hand] Retrieved April 7, 2015 from

Alyssa Tonelli – Animal Science

Christine O’Brien – Animal Science

Dan Garrigan – Animal Science

“That’s funny,” he thought as he grabbed one of the Petri dishes that had not been in contact with the Lysol tray. He noticed that there were separate colonies of staphylococci on the Petri dish. Toward the edge, he noted a colony of mold approximately 20 mm in diameter (Ligon, 2004). He did not see any staphylococci around the mold.

The Discovery of Penicillin

In the year 1928, scientist Alexander Fleming made one of the biggest medical breakthroughs ever recorded – the discovery of penicillin and its antibacterial properties. Some may classify this discovery “accidental,” however, this does not acknowledge its sheer importance to the medical field. Fleming’s experiment demonstrated that penicillin’s bacteriostatic and bactericidal properties, meaning that it would not only kill microbes but inhibit future microbial growth (Ligon, 2004). However, Fleming was unsure of how to apply this discovery to humans. In the war-stricken 1930’s, thousands of people were sick and dying due to septic infections that weren’t easily treatable in the field. Medics needed an easy and effective way to prevent infected wounds from infiltrating the rest of the body. The need for penicillin in a pharmaceutical capacity became critical. (Freedman et. al, 1981). Luckily Ernst Chain, Howard Florey, and their team of research assistants were up for the challenge.

Chain and Florey began working with their assistants day in and day out. For two years straight, Chain, Florey, and their assistants worked tirelessly to come up with a way to apply penicillin to the human body for the treatment of bacterial infections. Finally, in May of 1939, one experiment changed everything. This experiment was repeated multiple times over the course of the following year, leading to positive results. In 1945, Fleming, Chain, and Florey were awarded the Nobel Prize for one of the most important medical advances in history.

However, one could say that this medical breakthrough wouldn’t have been possible without their assistants. They were the real winners behind the Nobel Prize. These assistants probably weren’t named Jim, or Robert, or Larry. They were probably labeled by number because these assistants weren’t of the human variety – they were mice. These mice were really the ones behind the 1945 Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin. During their research, Chain and Florey injected a virulent strain of streptococcus into eight laboratory mice. They then injected four with penicillin, while the other four served as untreated controls. The mice treated with the penicillin survived, while the untreated group did not (Ligon, 2004). Through this experiment, Chain and Florey were able to demonstrate the bacteriostatic and bactericidal properties of penicillin. From this research, millions of lives have been saved through the use of penicillin (Alharbi, S., Wainwright, M., Alahmadi, T., Salleeh, H., & Chinnathambi, A., 2014). Undoubtedly, the discovery of penicillin was revolutionary and would not have been possible without the use of animal models in research.

The Threats to Animal Research

It’s quite obvious that the use of mice in the penicillin experiment proved to be beneficial for human medicine. Contrary to popular belief, using animal models in research is the best way to make breakthroughs in the medical field. Many people don’t realize how highly regulated animal research is in terms of ethical treatment of these subjects. Animal-based medical research is one of the many controversial topics in the world today, and similar to other fields there will always be room for improvement to better the lives of these animals. However, the problem is that the majority of people in today’s society see these animals as being tortured, and would rather promote the usage of other research model alternatives such as in vitro, computer models, or human volunteers. Society has been misinformed as to the use and benefits of utilizing animal models in research, and therefore are persuaded into thinking that other methods are superior.

One possible reason is that animal advocacy groups spread propaganda about animal-based medical research in a negative light. Animal advocacy groups, such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) describe animal research as “cruel” and “generally inapplicable to humans.” They also describe animal research as “unethical,” “bad science,” “wasteful,” and “archaic” ( when animal-based medical research isn’t any of those things.

Another reason the public may be misinformed is due to the fact that some researchers do not make it a priority to continually promote their research. They neglect to emphasize the importance of animal models and their contribution to medical discoveries. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute for Health (NIH) are responsible for awarding grants to aid the scientists in completing their research.  According to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee Guidebook (2012):

Institutions using animals need to communicate effectively and on an ongoing basis with the internal and external community and the media. It is important to build these relationships over time and to keep individuals in all of these areas informed about the significance of the work in which animals are used, and the institution’s commitment to scientific standards through quality animal care and use. Being proactive by conveying significant advances in research using animals ethically and humanely can reduce the potential for negative public reactions in a crisis situation.  (p. 73)

These organizations mandate that these researchers participate in community outreach opportunities in order to continually receive this funding. However, the enforcement of this policy isn’t highly regulated. As a result, community outreach isn’t always completed in a timely manner.

It is easy to see why the public can have such a skewed view of animal models used in research. Often times, the public isn’t informed of the benefits of animal models in research, which leaves the door open for society to draw their own conclusions. Many people think that the welfare of these animals is compromised, and that the research done on them is tortuous and unnecessary. However, what the majority of people fail to realize is that without animal models in research we would not have made the medical advances in human medicine that we have today. It is important to continue to use animals in research because the results yielded with animal models are far better than what other alternatives could provide.

Superiority of the Animal Model

Throughout medical history, evidence suggests that animal-based research yields results beneficial to human medicine. The animal model cannot be easily replaced by experiments conducted outside of an organism, also referred to as in vitro procedures. One may argue that with all of the technological advances being made in this day and age, there isn’t any need to subject animals to medical research. Surely there is another option that works just as well, be it in a petri dish, some sort of robotic platform, or even a computer simulation? While there are many non-animal alternatives being implemented in medical research, it has been noted that sometimes the experiments don’t work as hypothesized unless performed within a living organism. There are circumstances where tissue samples or computer programs simply aren’t comparable to a living, breathing creature. After all, the point of these medical advances is to aid the living. Wouldn’t the development of pharmaceuticals and surgical techniques on these living individuals yield the best results

One powerful example of the difference between life and death when comparing the use of animals or in vitro methods can be seen in the revolutionary and life-saving work of Dr. Gerhard Domagk. According to Botting and Morrison (1997), it was 1935 and nearly 300 out of every 100,000 men and women were dying of infections caused by hemolytic streptococci (p. 84). Dr. Domagk discovered that despite attempts to treat this bacterium on an agar plate, the new drugs he was developing showed no results. However, when the drugs were tested on mice infected with hemolytic streptococci they showed progress. This was because the antibiotic he had synthesized, sulfanilamide, was formed from a compound called prontosil within the body and that was where it worked best. From this discovery came many more sulfonamide drugs and a 1939 Nobel Prize for Dr. Domagk (Botting & Morrison, 1997).

A Skewed Public Opinion

With the recent rise of social media and the influence of pop culture on the masses, animal-based medical research has been thrust into the spotlight – and not always in a positive way. Animal rights activists and activist organizations such as PETA argue that medical animal testing is inhumane (Daube, 2003), casting images of puppies cowering in the corner of dirty cages and rabbits missing limbs or organs all in the name of science. Animal welfare is definitely a major concern in the medical field, which is why it is so heavily regulated both within individual institutions and on a federal level. According to the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research and the National Institute of Health’s publication, The Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (2011):

[A committee] was appointed in 2008 by the National Research Council; its 13 members included research scientists, veterinarians, and non-scientists representing biomedical ethics and the public’s interest in animal welfare. (p. xiii-xiv)

The purpose of committees like the ones implemented by the ILAR (Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources) and NIH (National Institute of Health), as well as smaller institutional organizations such as IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee) is to ensure proper animal welfare is being maintained, and approval is being granted from multiple sources. To avoid bias, there must be members of these committees unaffiliated with the research being conducted.

The Three R’s of Animal Research

If animal research can’t be replaced with other methods, the least we can do for the animals helping to develop life-saving pharmaceuticals and surgical techniques is to make sure we’re doing everything we can for them ethically. This is where the idea of the Three R’s of animal research come into play: Replacement of animals with non-animal research models where possible, Reduction of the total number of animals used in a study, and Refinement of protocols and procedures to reduce stress and improve welfare (Smith, 2001).

One way the scientific community is implementing the Three R’s is through the use of large animal research models. Larger animals such as dogs, pigs, or even bigger livestock can be beneficial for multiple reasons. Due to their size, a large animal is closer in anatomy and physiological function to a human. Larger surface area, including larger organs, allows scientists to use a single organ from an animal in pieces rather than needing to take them from multiple animals (Van der Velden & Snobson, 2011). Researchers are also able to visualize organs more easily than in smaller animals. Small-site laparoscopic surgeries allow quick recovery time, less pain, and less chance for infection or complication in a large animal, whereas any surgery on a small animal would be considered invasive and have high risks (Kehinde, 2013).

Changing Public Perceptions

Utilization of animal models in medical research is superior to current alternative methods. This is largely due to the anatomical and physiological similarities of the animals to humans and, therefore, must be continued in the interest of medical advancement. We propose that, in order to safeguard the future of animal-based research, a system of public interaction and education is critical. During a talk at the University of Washington, animal welfare proponent Temple Grandin wisely said, “If you don’t show what you do, then people are going to imagine and it’s going to be even worse” (Seinfeld, 2011). In order to protect the use of animal research, the scientific community should no longer ignore public relations.

As mentioned previously, researchers are required to participate in public outreach programs in order to receive various forms of funding. However, these mandated education programs are poorly enforced and rarely properly executed. This lack of follow through has allowed radical animal rights groups to bombard the general population with misinformation about the welfare of research animals. While public opinion alone will not end the use of animal research models, it does influence government policy and lawmaking that could negatively impact medical research. It is crucial for research institutions to increase their public outreach programs to include all members of society, not just academics or fellow members of the scientific community.

It is also understood that most members of the scientific community are not known for their prowess in public relations. Thankfully, there are ways to talk about the benefits of animal research without conducting town-hall style meetings or major public events. Organizations like PETA have demonstrated the power of social media.  Simply providing more accurate information to the general population through social media could have a positive impact on the public perception of animal research. Newspaper and magazine articles detailing current and future research projects can also be utilized to inform the public without putting researchers in uncomfortable situations.

The most difficult challenge will be helping the scientific community to effectively communicate with the general public. This can be addressed through training and/or continued education programs. Medical professional like doctors and veterinarians are required by law to participate in continued education programs to ensure they stay up to date with medical advancements and techniques. We would apply this same principle to researchers to ensure that they have the required skills to better explain their work.

Public outreach is the fastest and simplest way to improve the public perception of animal based research. Unfortunately, adequately addressing longstanding animal welfare concerns would require a campaign to update the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The modern AWA does not extend protection to a variety of the most common species used in research, like mice and zebrafish. According to United States Department of Agriculture, the Animal Welfare Act (2008) defines an animal as:

The term “animal” means any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (nonhuman primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warm-blooded animal, as the Secretary may determine is being used, or is intended for use, for research, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes, or as a pet; but such term excludes (1) birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research, (2) horses not used for research purposes, and (3) other farm animals, such as, but not limited to livestock or poultry, used or intended for use as food or fiber, or livestock or poultry used or intended for use for improving animal nutrition, breeding, management, or production efficiency, or for improving the quality of food or fiber. With respect to a dog, the term means all dogs including those used for hunting, security, or breeding purposes;. (7 U.S.C. §2132 para. G)

This means that rats, mice, livestock, and all non-mammalian species can be used for research without the strict protection provided to dogs, cats, and primates. In order to truly ensure the welfare of research animals, the Animal Welfare Act must be updated to include all species currently being utilized by researchers. This would also allow the welfare enforcing agencies, like IACUC, to extend their regulatory authority over all research institutions within the United States to ensure the wellbeing of every creature aiding in the advancement of human medicine. This would ensure equal treatment for all species and, hopefully, alleviate many of the public’s animal welfare concerns.

In conclusion, animal-based research is critical to continued medical advancement. Treatments developed through animal testing have saved millions of lives and resulted in a staggering number of medical breakthroughs. Animal models are superior to current alternatives because they provide a dynamic biological environment that cannot be effectively replicated by alternative means. In order to safeguard the future use of animal models, researchers must confront rampant misinformation through public education and effective communication. The Animal Welfare Act must also be amended to ensure the proper treatment of all animals being utilized for medical research. An informed public, coupled with broadened animal welfare requirements, will ensure that animal models will continue to drive medical progress until better alternatives become available.



Alharbi, S., Wainwright, M., Alahmadi, T., Salleeh, H., & Chinnathambi, A., (2014). What if Fleming
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Freedman, R., Ingram, D., Gross, I., Ehrenkranz, R., Warshaw, J., & Baltimore, R., (1981). A half century of neonatal sepsis at Yale: 1928 to 1978. American Journal of Diseases of Children. 135 (2). 140-144. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.1981.02130260032010.

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Ligon, L., (2004). Penicillin: its discovery and early development. Seminars in Pediatric Infectious Disease. 15 (1). 52-57. doi: 10.1053/j.spid.2004.02.001.

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Seinfeld, K., (2011). Animal expert Temple Grandin says fear can be worse than pain. KPLU National Public Radio, December 8, 2011.

Smith, R. (2001). Animal research: The need for a middle ground. Let’s promote the three R’s of animal research: Replacement, reduction, and refinement. British Medical Journal, 322 (7281), 248-249.

Van der Velden, J., & Snibson, K. J. (2011). Airway disease: The use of large animal models for drug discovery. Pulmonary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 24(5), 525-532. doi:10.1016/j.pupt.2011.02.001



  1. I am not a scientist, I am a medical translator, working at present on a scientific paper in which rats were used to determine the toxicity and tolerablity of certain substances. This apparently involved force feeding them the substances and recording their responses, particularly how long it took them to die at various doses. While the reasoning behind this is clear, the sheer horror of how they died is deeply disturbing, not to mention the euphemistic descriptions, nay, even humor, sprinkled in by the author with regard to their indescribable suffering as known poisons were forced into their stomachs day in and day out for months. You claim there is a “skewed public opinion”. There is nothing skewed about finding this type of experiment simply sick. I am not a medical professional and cannot suggest an alternative, but neither am I a PETA campaigner. In any case, I find myself deeply shaken by this. You say rats, among other very common lab animals, have no protections. Yet they are standard models used. You even have a rat at the top of this article! So in other words, your claim that there is some sort of ethical standard is rubbish. Clearly there is not. If this is the price of medical advancement, perhaps the price is too high.

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