The wonderful news of the agreement between the CNIO (National Center for Cancer Research) and the Franz Weber Foundation to carry out research projects using alternative techniques to the use of animals comes to me when I finished writing this article. It is a historic event because, as we will see below, it is an agreement that will not only benefit other animals, but also, to a greater extent than it seems, human beings.
At least since the publication of the Vivotecnia images, no one is aware that animals suffer the unspeakable in laboratories. Diseases are caused to them, products are inoculated, they are forced to carry out actions far from their ethology and they end up being killed. All in the name of people’s health. But of health, of which people? What effect does it have on the physical and mental balance of the research staff to cause continuous suffering to other beings who feel?
Paradoxically, some researchers who decide to dedicate their lives to science and experimentation do so out of love for nature, human beings and animals. This is how Dr. Amy Clippinger expresses it in the award-winning documentary Test Subjects, From Director Alex Lockwood: “When I started out, I was thinking about the great impact my work would have on human health, on curing disease, on making people’s lives healthier and better.”
The paradox of caring and killing
In a study of the year 2020 published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science magazine  and carried out with 801 employees who worked in animal experimentation, the risk of stress as a result, for example, of the constant formation and breaking of bonds between humans and other animals, was analyzed, among other factors. “This delicate moral situation is described as the caring-killing paradox.” While caring for the animals, staff are forced to perform procedures that cause pain and distress, “something that alone could lead to perpetration-induced or traumatic stress.” Euthanizing animals after testing is also believed to be a source of stress for many employees.
“I was using genetically modified mice for a study. The littermates were in the same cage and the siblings often slept together, sometimes on top of each other,” recalls Frances Cheng, Ph.D. in Physiology and Biophysics. “My job was to give them medications that would speed up or slow down their heart rate. Some of them died unexpectedly. The animals were shivering in the corners of their cages, in pain and unable to move, and I vividly remember each of the flat lines on the heart rate monitor “.
Cheng is another of the protagonists of the Lockwood documentary who, after learning about the day-to-day life of animal experimentation, chose to dedicate her life to seeking ethical alternatives to these practices. “I think it is important to show what animal experimentation does on a psychological level in people.”
Emily Trunell also completed her Ph.D. in neuroscience doing tests on animals, at the cost of “turning off the compassionate part” of her brain, which knew that her research subjects suffered and felt pain, just like her. “Some people, including myself, dissociate ourselves from the situation to manage the negative impacts on our mental health,” says Trunell. He still remembers perfectly the days when he had to slaughter the animals or when he had to inject them with a compound that caused them great pain. “I was so stressed that at the end of the day I had enormous muscle tension and migraines, but at the time I didn’t understand why.”
Frances Cheng’s testimony is tinged with pain and guilt. “I was in the middle of my PhD and I had a dilemma. Do I continue with this or do I quit? It took me several months and I still don’t know if my decision was the right one,” he recalls. “I decided to finish it because I thought that having a title my voice would be more heard and could help more animals. It was a selfish decision and I have not forgiven myself yet.”
Like Frances, Emily thought about quitting but decided to move on, believing that she would be the only person in the lab who was going to care for the animals properly and hoping she could make some positive changes.
Non-existent regulation and control
They always sell us the image that animal experimentation is a highly regulated field, in which daily work is scrupulously controlled, respecting the famous “three R’s”: reduction, refinement, replacement. The scandal caused by the images obtained in Vivotecnia has shown that this is not the case, as it was not in the laboratory where Emily did her research.
“Most people would be surprised what they let you do with very little training,” Trunell warns. “After a few demonstrations and supervised sessions, I was allowed, as a graduate student, to anesthetize mice, cut their scalps and pierce their skulls to inject a compound. I did all these procedures alone, there was no one to help me if something happened.” .
“I designed and conducted studies that had very little meaning for the well-being of humans or other animals,” Emily continues to recall. “In one of them, we injected the animals with a novel solution that, as far as we knew, had never been tested before. We guessed what the concentration should be, only to find that it caused the animals extreme pain when injected.” .
Feeling compassion for animals, a taboo subject
“My first advisor once joked about an incident where someone put a cage in a high-pressure cleaner with the mice in it,” Cheng recalls. “My advisor, who was a member of the ‘Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee’, which is supposed to safeguard their welfare, scoffed that the mice came out ‘very dry and clean’. Of course, they all died.”
Showing compassion for animals was a taboo subject, “it’s not something I heard about while I was there, it was all quite narrow-minded and unhealthy,” says Trunell. “They sold us the search for knowledge as a final objective, measured in published articles, given lectures and grants obtained. The use of animals was the best way to achieve all these things, they were the fastest and easiest experiments to carry out.”
“Post-traumatic stress disorder and secondary traumatic stress disorder are common in some professions, such as soldiers, veterinarians and slaughterhouse workers,” explains Frances Cheng. “People who experiment on animals are not immune to it, because their daily work involves deliberately making living things sick, observing and measuring their symptoms and eventually killing them.”
Trunell goes a step further, “some experimenters seem to take perverse pride in what they do, they see themselves as capable of doing ‘the dirty work’ that others cannot.”
When it came time to defend her thesis, Frances wanted to include in her presentation a dedication: “To all the animals I have killed. I’m sorry. I was wrong”, but her director warned her to delete that line, as it could affect her academic results. “It was painful for me because I needed to ask the animals for forgiveness and I couldn’t do it.”
Animal experiments are neither necessary nor irrelevant
Both scientists gave up animal testing, but did not quit science. I have asked them if, in their opinion as experts, humans can survive and progress without experimenting with animals.
“In fact, science and medicine can progress more quickly and efficiently without using animals. Numerous studies have revealed that these types of experiments do not lead to effective treatments and cures for human diseases. Reliance on animal models is diverting funds from areas promising research and delaying the development of effective drugs and treatments, “says Trunell.
“95% of new drugs fail in human clinical trials, despite being shown to be effective in animals. Failure rates are even higher for some diseases such as cancer (96.6%), Alzheimer’s disease (99.6%) and sepsis (100%) “, he adds.
“Animal experimentation is neither necessary nor irreplaceable,” Dr. Cheng also states. “Their very high failure rates can be attributed, in large part, to differences in the pathophysiology of each species.”
“There are many non-animal research methods, including organ-chip, organoids, microdosing, 3-D printing, and sophisticated in vitro and computer methods. Many of these modern methods, suitable for humans, outperform animal testing. It is irresponsible. continue animal testing because it just doesn’t work, wastes billions of public money, and delays appropriate treatments for patients, “he concludes.
This type of method will be used by the researchers of the ‘Friends of the CNIO-Franz Weber Foundation’ program, aimed at retaining young scientific talent in our country and opening new lines of research against cancer. Thanks to all the people involved in this agreement for making it possible.
 LaFollette MR, Riley MC, Cloutier S, Brady CM, O’Haire ME and Gaskill BN (2020). Laboratory Animal Welfare Meets Human Welfare: A Cross-Sectional Study of Professional Quality of Life, Including Compassion Fatigue in Laboratory Animal Personnel. Front. Vet. Sci. 7: 114. doi: 10.3389 / fvets.2020.00114