The U.K.’s University of Birmingham used an astonishing 43,000 animals for laboratory research last year, according to numbers uncovered by the Birmingham Mail. That included nearly 41,000 mice, 1,500 rats, 1,200 fish, and 90 amphibians.
Astonishing, right? Thing is, Birmingham doesn’t even top the list: Oxford University used more than 190,000 animals in 2013.
Birmingham maintains that its animals are treated humanely, and that it follows strict guidelines for their use in its labs. Those guidelines require that animals only be used for biomedical research purposes when alternatives are not available.
“We are involved in research to develop drugs and medical technologies that will help in the fight against life-threatening and debilitating diseases and improve health care for patients,” a university spokesman said. “Some diseases and health problems involve processes that can only be studied in a living organism.”
Animal rights groups question whether the use of animals in biomedical research labs is necessary—or even effective. Theodora Capaldo, president of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, points to a 2004 FDA study that found that the majority of drugs tested on animals failed in human trials.
“You have to strongly challenge the notion that more than an estimated 100 million animals continue to suffer and die in animal research and testing every year,” she said.
If any one of a slew of new technologies pans out, using animals to test medicine may soon go the way of the dodo.
A team of U.S. and British scientists this month announced the first lab-grown human epidermis, the outermost layer of skin. The breakthrough, published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, could provide a usable alternative to testing cosmetics and pharmaceuticals on animals. Similar research that resulted in the creation of a synthetic liver was unveiled in March at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society. The scientists behind that work also said they are seeking a way to eliminate the need for animal testing.
“Non-animal tests such as the new human skin model demonstrate the scientific superiority of alternatives,” says Capaldo. “What we need is a commitment to use, develop, and accept the better science that comes with alternatives. This is nowhere more obvious than in drug and product testing.”
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