Three days at Wiko to imagine a new world (for lab animals)

by Daniel M. Weary (Fellow 2015/2016)

Sometimes good ideas emerge over dinner, perhaps especially if you mix together a diverse group of engaged dinner guests, such as you might find in the restaurant of Wallotstr. 19 on any given Thursday evening.

At one such dinner, Mark Viney (Fellow 2011/2012) and others fall upon the ever-contentious issue of the use of animals in research in the news because of a scandal involving poor treatment. Like many a Thursday, despite the effort of the participants and the amount of wine consumed, no answers emerged. But one idea emerges and is later championed by Nikolaus Rajewski (Advisory Board member): could Wiko become a catalyst for progress on this issue, bringing together scholars who may be able to come up with useful approaches for moving forward?

Now skip ahead to April 2016. In the intervening years Mark has partnered with Victoria Braithwaite (Fellow 2015/2016) to co-host a Fellow Forum workshop on “Animal Experimentation.” Joining Mark and Victoria are two current Fellows: Paula Droege, a philosopher, and me, a biologist; another former Fellow, Anne Peters, a lawyer, and her colleague Saskia Stucki, also a lawyer; two visiting philosophers, Adam Shriver and Peter Sandøe; a regulator who inspects research facilities, Kathrin Hermann; a public relations expert working with institutions that use animals in research, Elaine Snell; and a journalist with an interest in the topic, Carl Gierstorfer.

The conversation, involving scholars from different disciplines, as well as practitioners and opponents of animal research, revisits themes that emerged over the fateful Thursday dinner: What types of framework are useful in justifying animal experiments? What can we learn by contrasting issues around animal experimentation with other forms of animal use? What is the regulatory framework governing the use of animals in research and is it effective? How and why is public opinion of animal experimentation important? How can concepts such as informed consent, harm reduction, and a good life render this animal use more acceptable? Can we imagine a world without harmful experiments on animals, and how might this be achieved? And, what is the role of the media in resolving these issues?

Using animals in research has always been contentious, but over the years an uneasy truce has emerged between animal users and the critics of animal use. This truce is based in large part upon a regulatory framework that allows practices that are otherwise illegal. One theme to emerge from our discussions was how regulatory frameworks also serve to legitimate animal experimentation socially, as well as legally, such that animal users (many of whom were initially critical of regulatory oversight) now mostly welcome the shielding effects of the law. Given this success, it seems logical to consider further regulation as a way to improve conditions for laboratory animals, but some participants expressed concern that a stiffer regulatory framework may shift experiments from jurisdictions with stronger legal protection to other jurisdictions where animals may suffer even greater harms. To date there seems to be little evidence of ‘off-shoring’ of invasive animal research, but the concern remains.

The predominant ethical framework is utilitarian: harms to animals should only be permitted if these are less than the expected benefits of the research. Despite the ubiquity of this framework, the participants concluded that this approach was flawed when it comes to deciding which specific studies should be permitted. One problem is that ethical review committees struggle to correctly anticipate the harms caused to the animals, in part because rarely is there anyone to advocate for the animals that suffer the harms. Institutions could ask for a more explicit assessment of the actual harms after a study was completed (thus providing a more realistic estimate for future studies), but there appears to have been progress on even this.

Much more successful has been the ability of oversight committees and regulators to achieve some measure of harm reduction by applying the so called ‘3Rs’ framework, that seeks to Replace animal use with not animal models, Reduce the number of animals use (for example via better designed studies), and Refine procedures such that animals experience less harm.

Perhaps even more important than the difficulties in harm assessment has been the lack of serious attempts to assess the actual benefits of the scientific work. The current process relies upon the researcher’s assessment of potential benefits, but these benefits are rarely subjected to serious third party scrutiny or to any retrospective assessment. Thus the harm-benefit analysis forming the foundation of ethical assessment for animal research seems weak. An alternative to harm-benefit analysis was discussed. Perhaps we could abandon the pretence of a utilitarian analysis, and instead work to achieve consensus around the prohibition of certain types of studies that fall sharply out of step with community values? All other studies could be permitted (regardless of the proposed benefit) so long as the study underwent a 3Rs review intended to minimize harms. Some elements of this approach are reflected in the current European prohibitions on studies involving great apes and severe harms to animals.

A novel idea to emerge from our discussions was to consider non-government regulatory approaches. The development of corporate and industry standards are now at least as important as government regulations to addressing welfare issues for farm animals in many countries. The development of these standards is partially motivated by the desire to protect the reputation of the companies that can otherwise be undermined by, for example, the release of undercover videos documenting cruelty. In addition, these standards fit well within emerging corporate social responsibility (CSR) standards addressing a range of ethical issues associated with business practices. In the area of lab animal use, what organizations might be interested in taking a similar approach? Perhaps large users or funders of research may be interested, including large pharmaceutical companies with strong brands to protect. Scientific journals also have a brand to protect, and some have already begun to develop standards around acceptable animal use. One intriguing idea to emerge from the workshop was to help large universities, with reputations to protect and donors to attract, to developing CSR programs that reflect their values around appropriate animal use.

More radical ideas were also discussed. The entire debate about animal use in research is based upon the idea that the projects are at least somewhat harmful to the animals. But what if this was not the case? What if living conditions provided to animals were such that even independent assessors judged their lives to be good, perhaps as good or better than that of a well cared for pet? What if the only studies permitted were those where the animals freely participated, such as in learning studies where animals choose to participate to earn food rewards or other treats? Or what if the only animals permitted to be used were pets from good homes with the animal’s caregiver providing a type of informed consent on the part of their loved ones, much like is required now for the parents of children participating in research studies? Clearly this would mean that certain types of harmful experiments would no longer occur, but might these better cared for animals, freely participating in studies (i.e. accepting a certain amount of pain or harm to gain something that they are fond of), actually yield more useful results that better translate to applications for human patients?

The question now is how to move forward with these and other ideas that emerged from the workshop? Next year in Europe and world-wide we will likely see record numbers of animals used, and much of this use will continue to be based on what appears to be a flawed framework. What Wiko can do to lead the development of new methods of thinking about animal research remains to be seen. Perhaps an approach forward will begin to emerge over discussions at some future Thursday dinner?