How the fight for animal testing made the scientific community more transparent

On the day that changed his life forever, Ruben calmly entered the laboratory of the Werner Reichardt Centre at Tübingen University to conduct a research experiment on a rat. There was the familiar buzzing sound of the dimmer switch as the fluorescent tubes flickered on. The white light illuminated the white benchtop where the white-coated rat calmly ground its teeth. A little plastic mask covered the gnashing sound as the anesthetic gas sedated the rat. Scalpel in hand, Ruben started the surgery. But a few minutes later a piece of equipment started to malfunction, reducing the amount of gas being delivered. Wiggling its foot, the rat started waking up. As the procedure dictates in case of unexpected reactions of the animal, Ruben immediately stopped the experiment and killed the rat. “That’s when I decided to abandon animal experiments”, says Ruben. It wasn’t that his position on animal testing had changed: “Unless we agree on only using the medicines that we already have, experiments are the only way to test drugs’ safety before they enter the market.” Ruben stopped because he simply couldn’t stand the stress of doing it himself.


The image of a researcher troubled by ethical dilemmas runs counter to that of scientists as éminencses grises whose pure focus exempt them from moral considerations. “The prominent ideology is that science doesn’t have anything to do with ethics. But in the case of animal testing the moral implications are obvious”, explains Bernard Rollin, American philosopher and author of a number of influential books that made him a world-leading scholar in animal rights.“ A bewildering array of scandals, such as that over fume tests on monkeys commissioned by Volkswagen, raised massive societal concern that overcame this artificial separation.” Eventually, part of the scientific community understood that it had to break the silence and make an effort to explain what happens in their laboratories and why. Massive animal rights protests made it very clear.


One such protest saw models parading with makeup that hadn’t been tested on animals as other mixed with the audience, their naked bodies painted in cruelty-free makeup. She was dressed in white from head to toe; her skin a russet, golden-brown; her upturned eyes black waxy marbles. After the last brush of scarlet lycopene lipstick, the model hugged a white bunny and carried it down the catwalk. This was 2000 in Portugal. Animal rights movements in Europe were making headlines after launching several synchronized and centrally coordinated protests across the continent. “Science must save lives without using lives”, says Maria do Céu Sampaio, who organized the demonstration. She is dressed in a cable-knit lambswool sweater over a blue velvet shirt, which gives a friendly touch to her professional look. Her confident and passionate tone contrasts with the weary gaze of someone who has spent more than 40 years fighting for animal rights. “Animals are not a useful resource to be exploited for our own advantage; they should undergo experiments only when they serve the purpose of saving lives.” In 2013, under growing public pressure and after assessing the availability of alternative methods, the European Commission imposed a marketing and testing ban on every cosmetic involving animal testing.


“It is a perfect storm”, reasons Rollin. “On one side the scientific community doesn’t address ethics anywhere near as much as they should; on the other the public has growing ethical concerns. Clashes are inevitable.” Rollin has personally tested this ideological barrier. In 1985 he wrote the federal laws requiring control of pain in laboratory animals “under vicious opposition from the scientific community”. On another occasion, the scientists from the University of Edinburg who cloned the sheep Dolly asked for his advice to prepare the public for the announcement. Some of the ethical issues he warned about were not addressed and so shocked society. “The problem is that the scientific community has completely failed to attempt to educate the public. Many still believe that people and dinosaurs lived at the same time!” But it’s in the interest of everyone to engage in a more open debate. ”Success, freedom and autonomy are tied to accord with social ethics”, says Rollin. In order to avoid inadequate regulations being pushed forward by ethical concerns, scientists must break out of their ivory tower. Internet has helped to breach some ideological walls.


I went from congresses to hashtag!” laughs Giuliano Grignaschi, a researcher at the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research. Grignaschi is not your typical scientist. His slender body of a track and field athlete leaves a strong clue of his previous career as a 400-meter sprinter. Only when he registered as a conscientious objector from serving the Air Force Academy and was assigned to community services, Grignaschi found that sport and science have a lot in common. “Improving, improving, improving. That’s the key in both cases.” After twenty years of laboratory research, his profound love for animals made him the head of the animal care unit with the task of supervising the correct application of the procedures on all animal experiments. “While the internet has greatly contributed to galvanizing a legitimate curiosity in scientific research, it has also misinformed the public”, he explains. “Because the scientific community was too reserved on animal testing, the only information found online was produced by well-intentioned, but misinformed activists.“ Grignaschi recognizes that animal rights groups had the merit of engaging public interest, but one side of the story was missing. Science’s widening disconnection from society has brought exaggerations and imbalance.


A few years ago the situation started to change. Grignaschi – fifty years old – opened his first Twitter account and learned to condense useful scientific information into 140 characters. His experience reflects a wider trend. In the digital era, the success of every company and institution is closely tied to public opinion. While Youtube videos shot covertly in laboratories have damaged the reputation of many companies, brands like The Body Shop have been wildly successful by totally disavowing such testing. “Research is not enough”, says Grignaschi, “a good scientist needs to be a good communicator as well.” But could such a change damage science by shifting the focus away from research? “Absolutely not. Real progress cannot be achieved at odds with ethics.” On the contrary, when quickly accumulating pressure for change encounters a major scientific challenge, innovation can make the fortune of a company. Such was the case for TissUse, a Berlin startup company which products can reduce the need for animal testing.


Yellow strips of tissue-infused silicon pump blood to three chambers the size of a screw head which house living cell cultures. The humble chunk of see-through material looks like a supercompact VHS which film snapped off the reel, but it actually simulates the activity of human organs. They call it human-on-a-chip technology – and it’s not science fiction. “Since the invention of the first human simulation in 1991, the goal has been to simulate the activity of human organs. What we want is to reproduce you and me on a chip, without us feeling any pain”, explains Uwe Marx, founder and CEO. “All you need to do is give us a sample and we will be able to simulate all your organs.” Technologies like this are a rare example of a limited array of alternatives to animal experiments that have emerged in the last few years. “But although they are very promising, organ-on-a-chip platforms can only offer an indication of what the real result on a living being would be”, explains Dario Padovan, president of Pro-test Italia, an association active across Europe in favor of continued animal testing to support scientific research. “The complexity of a full organism capable of feeling emotions and with a real psychological life cannot be tested with a simulation”, he explains. The same reason that makes animal testing morally disturbing also renders their use irreplaceable.


Two years after he left animal experiments, Ruben reached the same conclusion. He realized that no computer simulation could give him the answers he was looking for. “My whole field of research is useless if I don’t combine it with animal experiments.” Says Ruben. Today he works with zebrafish; a two-millimeter long, half-millimeter wide fish that has the rare feature of a transparent pigmentation. This allows scientists to study its brain without the need for surgery. “We often harm the fish in other ways, but even simply keeping it still while the noisy machine is at work can expose the animal to a lot of stress”, says Ruben. He pulls an elastic net of sugar gel into the water and drops it onto a fish. Its strings are so vicious that the tiny animal doesn’t notice it has swum into it. Its tail keeps flicking left and right, but the fish is not going anywhere. Ruben looks into the microscope, through the water and skin, directly into its brain.


The opening up of a part of the scientific community about animal testing is a positive event. According to Grignaschi and Rollin, such a reconnection can be beneficial for society as a whole and help fight a widespread anti-intellectualism in fields like vaccination and global warming. But the contrast with ethics is unavoidable. “It never gets easy”, says Ruben. “No one cares about my fish. But if you saw them growing up under the microscope, if you saw them breaking their eggs and swam free for the first time, you would care about them too.” He switches off the microscope and cleans the gel off the fish. The tiny creature swims away and mingles back in the shoal.