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Alternatives: methods which refine existing tests by minimizing animal distress, reduce the number of animals necessary for an experiment or replace whole-animal use with in vitro or other tests.

The use of animals in the life sciences dates back to ancient Greece and the earliest medical experiments. To learn about swallowing, ancient physicians cut open the throat of a living pig. To study the beating heart, they cut into its chest.

For centuries, physicians and researchers used animals to enhance their knowledge about how the various organs and systems of the body functioned, as well as to hone their surgical skills. As this knowledge grew, new scientific disciplines were born. First, physiology and pharmacology, and much later bacteriology and immunology, evolved as animal experimentation became more widespread.

As long as animals have been used in experiments, people have expressed concerns about such research. Questions about the morality, necessity and scientific validity of animal experiments have arisen since those ancient physicians first began to study bodily functions.

However, the rise of modern biomedical science in the nineteenth century saw an increase in both the numbers of animals used in experiments and the number of complaints about vivisection. Although opinion varied among scientists and the public about the degree of suffering experienced by animals, most scientists were united in the belief that animal experiments were necessary to expand their knowledge.

The modern animal protection movement also was born during this time. In 1789, philosopher Jeremy Bentham sounded the rallying cry for animals everywhere: "The question is not, can they reason, nor can they talk, but can they suffer?" The nineteenth century saw the creation of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in both Great Britain and the United States and passage of the first "anti-cruelty" laws in Britain.

Animal use in the life sciences continued to grow during the early twentieth century, but slowly. This changed after World War II, when skyrocketing development in the chemical industry, a multiplication of government regulations and a rapid influx of funding for biomedical research led to explosive growth in animal experiments. In particular, the need to test a burgeoning number of consumer products and drugs resulted in an escalation in animal testing. Today, tens of millions of animals are involved in testing annually in the United States alone, although exact figures are impossible to come by.

Again, the animal protection movement has broadened its scope and support base considerably during the postwar period. With the publication of Peter Singer's 1975 treatise, Animal Liberation, animal welfare groups have sprung up around the world. Some of the organizations have challenged, and continue to challenge, whether human beings have the right to "use" animals for any purpose. Others question the morality, necessity and validity of animal tests, just as their counterparts did centuries ago.

It has been due, in large part, to the tension between researchers who view laboratory animals as essential to their work and individuals who oppose animal tests that the modern alternatives movement has evolved. The movement began quietly, in 1959, with the publication of The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique by British researchers W. Russell and R. Burch. Russell and Burch advocated the "three Rs" of replacement, reduction and refinement. In the 1980s and 1990s, their philosophy has enabled researchers and animal welfare advocates to come together with a common goal: to find scientifically valid alternatives to animal tests.

New ALTEX: 2/2018

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