Alternative methods with computer simulation (in silico), organoids or cell cultures (in vitro) are preferred whenever possible for ethical, legal and economic reasons. They have great potential, but animal experiments (in vivo) remain irreplaceable if the organism is to be considered as a whole and with all its complexity. Cells, tissues and organoids can be grown today, but they only partially model what happens in a whole organism. After successful in vitro tests, complementary additional tests with in vivo models must be carried out to further confirm the hypothesis.
Although not an exact representation of the human body, animals used in research are reliable as models. The animal model’s record is positive, in particular in treating systemic diseases such as cancer or infections (e.g., with coronaviruses). Biomedical research needs animal experiments to understand the interactions between organs, chemical substances and other factors.
Animals and humans are evolutionarily related, which is why many biological structures and processes are comparable. However, there are also significant differences between biological species, which is why the choice of the appropriate animal model is crucial for any research question. Researchers can draw on a variety of different methods and approaches to specifically adapt animal models to the human biology question studied.
Mice are by far the most commonly used laboratory animals in Switzerland for several reasons: they are similar to humans in many respects, both genetically and physiologically; there are already a large number of well-established disease models using mice; and they have a relatively short generation time. In addition, mouse models are constantly being adapted to new findings.
If an animal can naturally get the same type of disease that affects a human, it can be used directly as a model. One example is mouse lines that are particularly susceptible to diabetes. In other cases, animals are genetically modified to develop diseases similar to those in humans, or they are infected with pathogens that cause a particular disease that also occurs in humans. Animal models that are immune to certain human diseases are of particular interest, as these can provide important insights into potential therapeutic approaches.
All animal experimentation taking place at EPFL is under the operational supervision of the Center of PhenoGenomics (CPG). The CPG makes sure that research with animals is carried out in compliance with the legal requirements and that welfare and well-being of animals is warranted.
In Switzerland, any experiment with animals is subject to authorization by the Cantonal Veterinary Office. Every authorization request submitted to the authorities must detail the purpose of the experiment, the experimental procedures that will be executed, the maximum number of animals that will be involved, and the degree of severity of the experiments to which the animals will be subjected.
From an ethical point of view, the application must specify the indispensability of the proposed experiments, thus allowing for the weighing of interests between knowledge to be gained through the experiment and prospective degree of distress experienced by the animals. Therefore, researchers must demonstrate the necessity and suitability of the intended experiments on animals.
Regularly, the veterinary authorities conduct visits of the facilities to verify that the housing conditions of the animals are respectful of the federal law and that experiments are conducted as validated by the Cantonal Veterinary Office.
Not in any way. On one hand, coronavirus vaccine developers are required to conduct routine animal testing to make sure the vaccine itself is not toxic and is likely to help the immune system respond to the virus. No vaccine can be used for humans without first being tested on animals. Animal testing is set to ensure that vaccines do not have undesirable systemic effects or undesirable side effects. Current state of research does not allow to test experimental vaccines exclusively on cells (in vitro) to ensure efficacy and safety for human population. This would be neither ethical nor legal.
On the other hand, without the basic and pre-clinical research started in the 1970s, scientists would not have been able to develop mRNA vaccines to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers expect that they will learn more about the infection from both human and animal studies, and get a better sense of which vaccines are likely to work best.
No. Animal testing for cosmetics is effectively prohibited in Switzerland. It does not fulfil the legal stipulations for permission in accordance with Art. 137 of the Animal Protection Ordinance (RS 455.1).
Besides, the Federal Act on Foodstuffs and Utility Articles (RS 817.0) stipulates that “the Federal Council may restrict or prohibit the launch on the market of cosmetics whose final formulation or ingredients have been tested in animal experiments”.
No. EPFL does not house non-human primates on its campus. However, researchers occasionally need to study non-human primates for some highly specific research projects, in the field of neurorehabilitation for example. These experiments are performed at specialized centers specifically organized for the studies with these species.
The use of primates in research is particularly restricted and the use of great apes (such as chimpanzees) in research is prohibited in Switzerland.
Yes, insects, like fruit flies (Drosophila), or worms, like C. elegans, both common model organisms in developmental biology, are not protected by the Animal Protection Ordinance.
However, all animal experimentation conducted in Switzerland using vertebrates, walking decapods and cephalopods, as well as immature mammals, birds and reptiles from the last third of gestation or pre-hatch development, and fish and amphibians starting at self-feeding larval stages requires an authorization for animal experimentation. Every animal protected by the law and used in an experiment is reported in the annual statistics of the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office.
In the development of medicines, in addition to non-animal methods and animal experiments, tests are always carried out on humans – the so-called “clinical trials”. But for ethical, legal and historical reasons, it is prohibited to test therapies on humans before their safety has been evaluated in preclinical trials. For this purpose, animal experiments are used in addition to computer simulations, pharmacological studies, and studies in cell and tissue cultures, especially in order to identify possible undesirable side effects at an early stage.
Also, from a practical point of view, human diseases cannot be researched exclusively on humans: for many diseases, there are simply not enough test subjects to get to the bottom of the many possible biological causes.
All the laboratory animals used in Switzerland come from accredited suppliers or institutions. At EPFL, we have our own internal breeding facilities for rodents genetic models. We also receive animals from accredited suppliers, mainly from Europe (France, Germany) and to a lesser extent from the United States, and from other universities.
The vast majority of the rodents we receive are young adults of about six weeks of age. Sometimes we also receive pregnant females. In the case of zebrafish, most of them come from institutions with which we collaborate. We can receive either eggs or adult fish.
It should be noted that we at EPFL do not perform research on wild animals and do not catch animals from a natural environment. All laboratory animals are born and purposely bred in specialized centers.
The question is not so simple and should not be asked in such way. Science is indeed not funded based on the model used but on a specific scientific question of interest. Many biomedical projects use a combination of different approaches to study the question, using both animal experiments and non-animal methods in a complementary way. For example, drug candidates are often first tested in cell or tissue cultures, so only promising compounds are used in animal studies.
In Swiss basic research, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) is the largest funder. In 2019, it awarded nearly 391 million Swiss francs for research projects in biology and medicine. Researchers could apply for these funds regardless of the model they chose: whether animal-free methods, animal experiments, or experiments on humans. In most cases, different models are used in parallel in an SNF project. Therefore, there are no SNF funds “reserved” for animal experiments.
However, in order to promote the development of non-animal methods, there are specific funding pots through the 3R Competence Center (3RCC) and newly through a National Research Program launched by the SNSF. This is also in response to an increasing demand for research funding in this area.
As a general rule, for both public and private sector research, animal experiments may only be conducted if the question cannot also be answered using non-animal methods. Furthermore, non-animal methods are in most cases cheaper as well as easier to apply. Therefore, also from a practical and economic point of view, non-animal methods are preferred if they have the same scientific significance as animal experiments.