Lab Rats: Unsung Heroes of Science
When you think of rats, what comes to your mind? Probably dirty pests that roam your city’s sewers, right? However, did you know that rats have contributed tremendously to scientific research, and to the development of countless drugs? Rats & mice constitute 95% of laboratory animals, and have been used to make great medical & scientific advancements for decades. From HIV antiretrovirals to cancer drugs to yearly flu vaccines, you can name any drug, and there’s a high chance that rats contributed significantly to the development of it.
So why rats? There’s a lot of other animals that we could test on. Well, there’s several reasons why rodents make the perfect test subjects. First is logistical convenience. Rats are very small animals that are easy to transport, handle, and run experiments on. Additionally, rats are easy to house/care for, adapt to new surroundings very well, are not dangerous to work with, and are very inexpensive. Secondly, rats are terrific breeders– rats breed very fast and bear many offspring, making it possible to conduct experiments with less time and effort. Rats also have a very short lifespan, which is advantageous in studies that require the observation of multiple generations. Thirdly and most importantly, rats are biologically and behaviorally very similar to humans. Rats share 90% of their genes with humans, and many of their bodily functions work very similarly to that of a human. Due to this, many symptoms of human conditions can be replicated in rodent models, and countless diseases/disorders such as cataracts, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, respiratory problems, seizures, deafness, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, cystic fibrosis, cancer, muscular dystrophies, spinal cord injuries, and more, can and are being studied in rodent models. Additionally, scientists are now able to breed genetically-altered mice called ‘transgenic mice,’ as well as mice with certain genes turned on/off called ‘knockoff mice,’ both of which enhances the similarities between rodent subjects and humans even more.
However, there has been a grave cost to the countless scientific discoveries
made by rodents– more than 100 million rodents are killed in U.S. laboratories every year, often being abused in everything from excruciatingly painful burn experiments to toxicology tests to psychological experiments that induce depression. Despite many concerns raised about the ethics of using rodents in labs, many scientists still see mice/rats as disposable research tools, taking advantage of the fact that rats/mice are not covered under animal welfare laws in the U.S. Although there’s not much we, as individuals not involved in an animal testing facility, can do to help these animals, we can always spread awareness. On the other hand, if you are affiliated with a research facility, please keep in mind that rodents are intelligent, sentient beings that like to play, can empathize with others, and most certainly, aren’t mere test subjects. Although current technology doesn’t yet allow for the complete abandonment of animal testing, we can always follow the 3 Rs when working with animals –replacement, reduction, and refinement– and try to treat rodents humanely and with respect. After all, rodents are the true unsung heroes of science.
Photo credit: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/586545/female-lab-rats-are-victims-gender-bias-too