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Animal testing in biomedical research in Europe

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In European countries, as well as in other countries ‘Animal testing in biomedical research’ is a subject of heated debate.

Author / translator Glenn Embrechts

In European countries, as well as in other countries ‘Animal testing in biomedical research’ is a subject of heated debate.

On the one hand, we are looking for new, improved and safer drugs and treatment. On the other hand, we do not want animals to have to suffer or die to realize this.

Despite an increasing number of alternatives to animal testing, it is as yet not possible to exclude animal testing completely.

But how far should we be allowed to go to improve our own health?

"This game is largely based on a version created by students of the Erasmus MC University Medical Center Rotterdam."

Created 7 September 2019
Last edited 16 January 2020
Topics Ethics, Health, Science

Policy positions

Policy position 1

Animal testing should never be allowed, not even for biomedical research.

Policy position 2

Animal testing in biomedical research is only allowed for research into the cure or treatment of life threatening diseases, such as cancer.

Policy position 3

Animal testing in biomedical research is allowed if the animals are well cared for and there are no alternatives.

Policy position 4

Animal testing in biomedical research should always be allowed.

Story cards


I have leukemia and my survival rate is 55%. I have heard that there is a new treatment on the way. Before I could possibly take part in a research study, animal testing has to have been completed first. Naturally, it’s awful that animals have to die for me but I am only 30 years old and I don’t want to die yet.

Paul's story

I am the chairman of a patients’ association. The association is devoted to research on new treatments even if this means that animal experiments have to be carried out. Research into new treatments gives patients hope. I do think it’s important that the animals are treated humanely.

Herman's story

My three-year-old son has epilepsy. We have been able to control his epilepsy until now but I’ve noticed that he needs ever-increasing amounts of medication. When a new drug is brought to market I am sure it has been extensively tested on animals and patients. But how do they know that it has no harmful long-term effects? And what are the effects on children?

Mirjam's story

I work for the Society for the Protection of Animals, where we are critics of animal testing but at the same time we are also realistic. We aim to abolish animal testing entirely but realize this is not possible yet. We hope to achieve this through discussions with animal testing experts, researchers and the government, thereby promoting alternative research methods in which no animals are used.

Derk's story

I believe that mice and humans have equal rights. Mice should, therefore, not be used for research. I would never threaten a researcher working with mice but I did once help to free mice from a laboratory. I could, therefore, be seen as an animal rights activist.

Jan's story

I am a physician at an University Medical Centre and carry out research on cancer. Using mice for our research has enabled us to make a great leap forward in treating and even preventing one type of colorectal cancer. We may be able to cure more patients in a few years time. When I go to parties, I do not tell people that I carry out experiments on animals as people often do not understand. This is a shame.

Phillip's story

I am an animal carer at an animal testing center. The animals are treated well at the center and it is interesting to work with the animals. However, they will eventually be used in an experiment so I want to give them as good a life as possible.

Laura's story

I will be going to university next year and after having studied Biology I want to become a scientific researcher. I don’t think that I want to work with laboratory animals. Can I not just work with computer models?

Marieke's story

I think it’s sad that animals have to suffer because we are ill. I have a dog and I can tell that he has feelings just like humans. I’d hate to think of my dog being used in an experiment. How must those laboratory animals feel?

Glenn's story

I am a nurse in a home for the elderly and come into contact with many Alzheimer’s patients. It is awful to see a mother unable to recognize her own children. A drug has now been found for Alzheimer’s disease that has a
positive effect on mice. Will this drug also work on humans?

Karin's story

I am member of a foundation that is against animal testing. Their quarterly journal often mentions the fact that more laboratory animals die than necessary. Further funding should be made available for developing
methods that do not require laboratory animals. If only we would want to, we could surely use fewer laboratory

Ralf's story


Not far enough?

Has medical science not advanced far enough yet as a result of animal experiments carried out in the past? Do the advantages still outweigh the disadvantages?

Global epidemic

There is a sudden global outbreak of flu that could possibly kill millions because there is no vaccine yet. Does this mean that more animal experiments may be carried out to enable the quick development of a vaccine?

Animal living conditions and factory farming

The living conditions of animals in factory farms are far less humane than the conditions of laboratory animals. Despite this, eating meat is permitted. Is eating meat more important than advances in medicine?

Are humans more important than animals?

Is a human being more important than an animal? Does it matter what kind of animal?

Animal testing concerns everyone

If one really disapproves of animal testing should one also not accept drugs or other treatments that have been developed by means of animal testing?

Is an animal a good model?

An animal is not the same as a human. Can animal tests correctly predicate what is to be expected in humans?

Drugs for animals

Is it less bad if laboratory animals are used to develop drugs for animals?

A better life than pets?

Strict rules and good care ensure that laboratory animals are better off than some pets.

Mice or pigs?

Is it less bad to use mice rather than pigs?

Use of breeding animals in experiments

Should breeding animals that have raised litters still be used in experiments? Or have the mothers done enough?

Is everything allowed?

Should everything be permitted in curing the most serious human diseases such as cancer and AIDS?


Do humans have the right to use or kill animals, particularly if we ourselves have seen to the birth of that animal?

Awareness by politicians for animal testing

Politicians should pay more attention to animal testing and increase funding for research on alternatives.

Medical progress

Medical progress cannot be achieved without animal testing. Progress made in the past was only possible as a result of animal testing.

Too few alternatives

Alternatives are still insufficiently used.

Respect for nature

We should respect nature and not genetically modify laboratory animals.

If we don’t do it, someone else will

If we don’t do it they will most definitely do it somewhere else. Although we do our utmost to ensure animal welfare in this country, other countries may well think very differently about animal welfare. Besides, just the joys and not the burden?

Making drugs available

There are still so many drugs that are not available for everyone. We should do something about this before we develop new drugs using animals.

Do animals think about themselves?

If an animal looks strange but is accepted by the rest of its species, is it a case of animal suffering? Or is only we who see it as a problem and not the animal itself?

Do we have the right?

What gives human beings the right to use animals as pets, production animals or laboratory animals? For what purposes can or cannot we use them?

Do we want to keep everyone alive?

Do we want to keep everyone alive? Or should we accept the fact that not everyone dies at the same age and let nature take its course? And who has the right to make this decision?

Side effects

Would you want to use a drug with unknown side effects and for which it is as yet unknown how it works? Would you want your parents to use this medication?

Laboratory Animals in Europe

In 2011, just under 11.5 million animals were used for scientific and other experimental purposes in the European Union, for the benefit of human health.

Less discomfort

Sometimes, if the experiments result in greater discomfort to certain animals, the burden per animal can be reduced by using more animals.

One link in the research chain

Animal experiments are one of the important links in the research chain. They are used to test whether a substance also works in an entire organism, before the substance is tested on humans. The majority of research on new drugs, new treatments or even on ways of preventing a disease is carried out with people, tissue cultures, computer models and other non-animal testing methods.

Training for researchers

Not just anyone is allowed to work with laboratory animals. A researcher may only work with laboratory animals if he/she has a proper education and has succesfully finished a course in 'laboratory animal sciences’.

Acquiring new skills

There are currently many new methods and instruments for interventions in which the patients are spared. These techniques are often complicated. Before surgeons can use these techniques on humans they first train on laboratory animals.

3 R’s: REPLACING, Reducing and Refining (1)

Animal testing is, where possible, being replaced by non-animal testing methods.

3 R’s: Replacing, REDUCING and Refining (2)

New techniques have resulted in an increasing amount of information being obtained per animal which means
that fewer animals are necessary to achieve good research outcomes. No more animals than necessary are allowed to be used in an experiment.

3 R’s: Replacing, Reducing and REFINING (3)

The animals are well cared for, are provided with the company of other animals and they get toys for a good quality of life. The animals are also handled in a kind and gentle way and anesthetic and painkillers are administered if necessary. Invasive experiments are stopped as soon as possible.

Animal Experiments Committee

Every animal test is first assessed by the animal experiments committee. This ethics committee determines whether the research is important enough to what extent the laboratory animals can be part of the study.

Supervision of animal welfare

Each institution has a laboratory animal expert who supervises the welfare of the animals. Each animal facility has a designated vet with expertise in laboratory animal medicine.


The European Directive 2010/63EU on animal experiments protect animals that are used for research. The most commonly used animals are mice. The zebrafish is increasingly used as the embryos develop outside the female body and can therefore be more easily examined.

Training for animal carer

Laboratory animal carers should have a diploma that specifically includes laboratory animals.

Double animal testing

If research does not result in interesting outcomes it is not reported or published and there is a chance that other researchers will also carry out similar experiments.

Developing alternatives

Alternatives to animal testing are being broadly developed within the EU by University Medical Centers, industry, government bodies, research institutes, specialized laboratories and through EU funded projects.

Ethical judgment

Animal testing is only permitted if the expected benefits outweigh the expected harms of the animals.

Legal obligations

New drugs are expected to be tested on laboratory animals before they may be further tested on humans (volunteers and patients).

Human diseases

To date, (70% of the 6000 --> WHO webiste...) many known human diseases cannot be treated properly.

add prevention instead of curing focus currently

Animal testing results (1)

Based on tests carried out on rabbits, the first cornea transplants were performed on humans in the early 1900s.

Animal testing results (2)

In the 1940s the heart-lung machine was developed thanks to tests on dogs.

Animal testing results (3)

In the 1950s a polio vaccine was made possible thanks to tests on mice and monkeys.

Animal testing results (4)

A vaccine against Alzheimer’s disease is being developed that has proved effective in mice and is now being tested on humans.

Identifying laboratory animals

Laboratory animals are identified to be able to tell them apart. This can be done either temporarily by shaving away some fur or marking the skin or fur with dye, or permanently using subcutaneous microchips or an ear tag. Sometimes this is not possible because the animals are too young, too small or do not have enough fur yet. In this case, the toe clipping method is used. These animals are 8 days old at the most.

Not sicker than necessary

Some experiments can make the animals sick. Researchers can often, at an earlier stage, already see what the outcome of an experiment will be. In the Netherlands is prohibited to make animals suffer longer than necessary to carry out the test. Researchers will then put the animals to sleep before they become seriously ill.

Research on a whole body

The bodies of humans and animals are very complex. In order to study the complicated interaction between cells and tissue in a whole body, laboratory animals are needed.

Breeding laboratory animals

Certain strains of laboratory animals that are often used are bred by specialized breeders having a permit to do so. Special strains and lines are bred by the institutions themselves.

!!! Animal welfare - delete!

The welfare of the laboratory animals is of in constantly improving. The number of animal experiments in which the animals experience severe distress, such as a serious operation, is decreasing.

Animals’ feelings

Scientific research shows that animals can experience pain and stress.

Side effects

Drugs can cause side effects. Usually there are only a few side effects and they are harmless, but there are case in which they can be harmful. Further development of candidate drugs is often stopped as animal tests show that they are not safe enough, are not absorbed well or leave the body too quickly.

Examples of alternatives

Alternative research methods could result in the use of fewer animals or less animal suffering. After the introduction of a suitable alternative it is quickly no longer seen as such and becomes commonplace. There is
much interest for the use of human material, for example, lab-grown skin.

No new drugs

Not all animal experiments ultimately result in a new drug or a new treatment.

Thalidomide tragedy

Animal tests do not always prove that a drug is safe. Between 1957 and 1961, thalidomide was prescribed as a sleeping pill for pregnant women. This drug had been tested on mice but on humans it turned out to have a terrible side effect: many babies were born with malformed limbs, ears or organs. Nowadays, more detailed
tests are performed to determine potential side effects for pregnant women, particularly possible effects on the unborn child.

Serious side effects

Active substances used to treat serious diseases often also have serious side effects (for example, chemotherapy). Animal tests are necessary to understand the side effects in an intact organism.

Fewer animal tests

The introduction of legislation is aiming for reducing the number of animals. F.e. in the Netherlands there was a clear reduction in animal use after the introduction of this legislation in 1986.

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