Murine models: An open letter to my research facility

I work at a biomedical research facility whose identity, quite tellingly, shall remain anonymous. Its research focuses on oncology and related fields. I do not directly experiment with animals nor do I ever would, and my specific area of research does not usually require any animal models. If someone suspects or witnesses animal abuse or any kind of animal welfare incident in the facility, he/she can report it through a physical mailbox, which is what the present letter aims at. The institution believes that the mailbox initiative will ensure animal wellbeing. I beg to disagree.

Animal welfare incidences at XXX

The aim of this letter is to report an egregious animal welfare incident at the XXX facilities, as it has come to my attention that some highly intelligent and sensible animals are being subjected to unknown (to me) procedures for which, I would venture, there is little scientific basis, as well as insufficient moral justification. Indeed, I am talking about mice. And, indeed, I am arguing that the fact that any form of animal testing is taking place in this center at all, is an animal welfare incident in itself.

At this point, I have to politely ask the reader to stay tuned and avoid the urge to throw this letter into the paper bin without having yet reached the end of it. Although the previous paragraph was intended to sound smug and satirical, this letter aims to be a brief but serious exposition of my reasons to oppose such practices. We are confining animals in cages for the rest of their lives, perpetuating a system of untold levels of exploitation and mistreatment that is rarely discussed in the scientific sphere. But we must not worry, for the animal welfare incidences mailbox will ensure that the cages are big enough, right? It is a real predicament that we fail to see the irony of such an initiative. I understand that we justify this appalling situation by appealing to the greater good for humanity, and we cope with it by not thinking too much nor too rationally about it. Well then, let us try to do exactly that, starting by examining what the philosophical underpinnings of such an attempt at an ethical justification might be.

Animal models’ advocates tend to justify animal experimentation by appealling to the value it provides in terms of the speed with which new medical advancements can be delivered to humanity. Given the latter premise, it is somewhat strange that we have decided we are not going to engage in any form of non-consensual human testing, even when we know for sure that medical advances would skyrocket if we were to allow it. We have put upon us a moral imposition, which compels us to value the autonomy of a single human being over the potential lives of many others. This means that, whilst absolutely anything (Any. Thing.) can be done to millions of non-consenting non-human animals in order to save one single human from a sore throat or a head ache, nothing can be done to a single non-consenting person in order to save millions from cancer. We run a utilitarian framework when talking about ‘lesser’ animals, but as soon as we reach the human animal, we become engulfed by deontological intuitions. This is, in my opinion, not a trivial point.

The fact that humans have higher moral value than other species, is a perennial platitude which I am not going to put into question here. The irony is that we fail to empathize with the animals we render unworthy of our moral privileges on the grounds that we have a higher capacity for empathy and complex emotions than they do. Moreover, the moral distinction we have set cannot be justified unless we specify which are the physiological, neuroanatomical or behavioral differences between humans and animals that render it acceptable to put them in cages and pour experimental chemical compounds into their eyes, whilst rendering immoral to do it to humans. Of course, such differences do not exist, since the only ethically relevant variables are sentience and the capacity to feel pain, which I expect are not going to be denied. In fact, a compelling case can be made that non-human animals might have more profound subjective experiences than humans, given their superior senses, their less conceptually driven cognition (conceptual thinking could be eliminative of conscious experience) and their inability to rationalize suffering and to find psychological pathways to appease it in the way we can. But I digress.

In brief, there is a serious philosophical problem with animal testing, as I hope I’ve made clear by now. However, animal models have intrinsic problems worrying enough to force the medical community to start seriously considering alternative methods, not just for the animal’s sake but for our own. Rodents in particular are a demonstrably poor model to work with, and many researchers have put their use into question, as well as criticized the preposterous economical resources that are put into it. An outrageous example comes, ironically enough, from my dear cancer research.  

In a paper from as far as 2002, it was reported that captive-rodent breeding protocols exert strong selection against reproductive senescence and virtually eliminate selection that would otherwise favor tumor suppression (as a matter of antagonistic pleiotropy). This phenomenon, a product of the conditions in which rodents are kept in research facilities, appears to have greatly elongated laboratory mice’s telomeres, making them unreliable models of normal senescence and tumor formation. As the researchers of the article that I am citing put it: “Safety tests employing these animals likely overestimate cancer risks and underestimate tissue damage and consequent accelerated senescence”. Another study, from 2013, found that genomic responses in mice models poorly mimic human inflammatory diseases, as in, nearly randomly. As the researchers assert: “Our study supports higher priority for translational medical research to focus on the more complex human conditions rather than relying on mouse models to study inflammatory diseases”. The number of research papers coming to equivalent conclusions goes far beyond the hundreds.

As stated, there is a plethora of practical reasons to avoid murine models that don’t just stay in the metabolic, anatomic and cellular realms, but also extend to the methodological. For instance, many laboratory mice are obese from excess of food and minimal exercise, which can alter their physiology and drug metabolism. Furthermore, many, if not all of them, are chronically stressed, which obviously makes them prone to underperform, both physically and mentally. It is basic common sense that by spending their entire existence under extremely impoverished conditions, these miserable sentient beings bear no resemblance at all with their wild conspecifics, not to mention to actual human beings. They lack access to environmental agency, and thus the ongoing freedom to make decisions and experience their consequences. All in all, they lack adequate intellectual and social stimulation to grow healthy and to be of any medical use.

It is just an absurd scenario, analogous to having humans be caged, overfed and treated miserably, expecting them to daily perform in the ways normal human beings would, both metabolically and psychologically, whilst literally relying on the resulting material to produce edible medical drugs. Only, it is far worse than that, since depressed, chronically stressed and mentally insane humans are more reliable models of human health than any other animal. Given the ever-growing evidence pointing to the obsolescence of animal models, and the plethora of new methodologies that are able to circunvent their inherent limitations (human tissue synthesis, in vitro studies, human volunteers and computational simulations, to name a few), it is a real indictment of our society that we are failing to make the switch, to the point of even mocking any attempt at an informed abolitionary stance.

I think that the only way to ensure that no animal welfare incidences do take place in our facilities, is to accept once and for all, that animals are not only incredibly unreliable models for some medical purposes, but are also sentient and emotional beings that deserve the right not to be abused in obscene and unnecessary ways. One could say that if it weren’t for animal models, we would have never achieved the medical advances we enjoy today in such a short amount of time, but we must keep in mind that if Edward Jenner hadn’t injected an unsuspecting child with an experimental drug of his own design, we might still wouldn’t have vaccines by now. I suspect no one is tempted to use this as an excuse to put children in cages in some hospital facility for later experimentation.

I don’t expect, but hope for a reasoned retort. Additionally, in a fairer and better world, I would be interested in knowing what kind of procedures are taking place, and in what conditions, since I am not a user myself. You can find me at I do hope that the tone of the letter is not mistaken for a scientifically immature attempt at virtue signaling, but one of genuine care and preoccupation about human and, of course, non-human welfare.

Thanks for the attention and best regards,


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