Biology freshman Hannah Kellems was so appalled when she read the media reports of the experiments this month, she began paperwork to transfer to another college.
One protest has already taken place and another is scheduled for Dec. 7. A candlelight vigil was held Saturday night outside the university, and organizers said the flickering flames were for the countless animals who had their bodies cut up and injected with disease in the name of science.
The development of alternatives such as skin grafts and cell cultures have decreased the use of animals by almost 50 percent over the past few decades by some estimates, but tens of millions of animals are still used in experiments and research nationwide.
“The standards are much better than they used to be and the willingness to carry out these studies are decreasing,” said Thomas Hartung, the director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, or CAAT. “Science has come a long way, and the more you know the less you need animals.”
Exact counts of the number of animals used in research today vary widely, but most organizations agree that mice, rats and birds make up almost 95 percent of the animals in U.S. laboratories. About 1 percent are dogs, cats and nonhuman primates, while the other roughly 4 percent are rabbits and nonvertebrates such as zebra fish.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for inspecting laboratories and enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, but does not oversee the use of rats, mice and birds.
According to a 2012 USDA annual report, the most recent available, GRU had 59 nonhuman primates, 40 pigs, 22 dogs, 16 rabbits and six cats in its facilities.
While some animal research is required by law for toxicology tests, opponents say animals are still suffering for unnecessary cosmetics research and testing of products that already have been developed and approved. The European Union this year banned the import and sale of cosmetics containing ingredients tested on animals.
On Nov. 20, the Humane Society of the United States released footage from an undercover investigator that showed hound dogs being used for dental implant experiments at GRU. The HSUS investigation found the university bought these dogs from a class B dealer, one who picks up strays or gets animals from pounds, shelters or “free to a good home” ads, then sells them for research.
This dealer, Kenneth Schroeder, has been cited several times by the USDA since 2011 and is under federal investigation over accusations that he violated the Animal Welfare Act. Officials from HSUS were also unclear whether GRU’s dental implant experiment was properly approved by the university’s internal committee, as is required by law.
Joanne Zurlo, CAAT Director of Science Strategy, said there are approximately 72,000 dogs used in research today. Dogs are used because they share hundreds of hereditary diseases with humans, their genetic makeup is similar and many therapies in dogs are translatable to humans, according to a 2011 workshop report by Zurlo on the subject. They are used primarily in drug development and pesticide testing, and the Environmental Protection Agency still requires pesticides be tested in one rodent and one non-rodent species.
However, Zurlo said the public’s emotional connection to dogs and new technologies that can replace them have played roles in reducing the frequency of dogs in labs.
“We’re really in an era right now where science is moving ahead quickly,” she said. “We are moving away from the use of animals in a lot of ways.”
In the past several decades, about 50 alternatives have been developed to replace or reduce the number of animals being used.
Regulatory agencies in the U.S. and Europe allow the use of skin grafts, sometimes left over from cosmetic or other surgery, to test whether chemicals will cause burns or irritation. 3-D computer models of human cells are also being used to test drugs and chemicals.
Scientists are also developing organs in 3-D to replace toxicology testing on rats and dogs.
In some cases the goal is to reduce the number of animals used. For example, a test to determine how much of a chemical is lethal, known as the LD50 test, once used 150 animals per substance but that has been reduced to 12.
Jacquie Calnan, the president of Americans for Medical Progress, said despite science’s advances, animals are still very much needed in research. Before putting a drug on the market, scientists have to show how it responds in a living system. And sometimes finding better treatments for disease or more effective drugs can’t be done in a 3-D model.
Over the past century, countless medical breakthroughs have been made through animal experimentation. Immunizations against polio, hepatitis and measles are just a few. The development of organ transplantation, chemotherapy and coronary bypass surgery were also made with animals.
Researchers are also testing on animals to develop treatment for AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.
But public support for animal testing is declining. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, the percentage of 18- to 34-year-olds who support animal testing has dropped 18 points since 2001, to 47 percent.
Apart from the moral opposition, many animal welfare groups argue animal testing is not relevant to human health.
According to Hartung, if aspirin were invented today it would fail toxicology tests because it kills half the rats given doses used by humans. Drugs also show different effects between species, such as rats and mice, and differences in metabolic systems make some experiments irrelevant to humans, he said.
HSUS Chief Scientific Officer Andrew Rowan said the goal should be to reduce the harm and suffering to animals and unnecessary testing.
“I don’t think we’ll ever not use animals in research, but I think what will happen is we won’t cause any harm and suffering,” he said. “You can use research on people’s pets through clinical studies, we can use humans now. You can do studies on animals that don’t involve suffering. What we’re arguing for is we should end the use of animals in research causing them harm.”