Animals in Research

Workplace modern laboratory for molecular biology test on blue background

Animals are used in many different types of scientific research. One way to categorize the types of research animals are involved in is to establish whether the research is basic or applied. Basic research is exploratory: an open-ended search for more information for the sake of increase knowledge or for scientific advancement. Applied research is used to answer a specific question that has direct applications to the world.

Basic Research

Basic research is driven by curiosity and a desire to expand knowledge. This type of research is not typically applicable to the real word in a direct way, but enhances scientists’ understanding of the world. Basic research has traditionally studied life at the cellular and molecular level to establish what mechanisms and metabolic pathways are involved in the essential life processes of living organisms. Numerous animal species are involved in basic research, mice being the most common (see Facts and Figures for the latest Canadian data).

An example of basic research would be a study looking at how caffeine consumption affects the brain. The goal of the research is simply to increase the amount of knowledge on this particular topic, not to come up with a practical solution to a problem. In terms of the data provided by the Canadian Council on Animal Care, it is Purpose of Animal Use (PAU) 1 that represents the number of animals in basic research (PAU 1 = studies of a fundamental nature in science relating to essential structure or function).

Applied Research

Applied research refers to scientific study and research that seeks to solve practical problems, and is used to find solutions to everyday problems, cure illness and develop innovative technologies.

An example of applied research would be a study investigating which treatment is the most effective for reducing anxiety. So in terms of the data provided by the Canadian Council on Animal Care it is the sum of Purpose of Animal Use 2, 3 and 4 that would represent the numbers of animals used in applied research. In our definition, this would include animals used for testing different types of products.

One major use of animals in applied research is the creation of so-called “disease models” whereby animals are induced to have specific diseases so that either progression of the disease can be studied, or so that new drug treatments can be developed. Increasingly, genetic engineering techniques are used to create genetically engineered ‘animal models’. These GE animal models are predisposed to develop certain diseases that can then be studied.

The creation and use of genetically engineered animals for their use in research pose certain ethical and animal welfare concerns. These have been discussed in detail in the Canadian Veterinary Journal. In brief, the major concerns are: 1) the invasiveness of procedures used to achieve the genetic alteration of interest, 2) the unanticipated welfare concerns that might arise, 3) the high numbers of animals involved in the creation of a new genetically engineered animal line, and 4) how best to draw ethical limits in terms of what is acceptable regarding the genetic engineering of animals. However, despite these concerns, genetically engineered animals are increasingly used and now represent the majority of animals used in science.