If there’s one thing the pandemic has strengthened, it’s our relationship with pets. Without bothering with Istat baskets or opinion polls, just look at the quantity and variety of pet shops that have sprung up in our cities to understand how the number of dogs and cats that keep us company has increased. Yet that same dog that we love as a family member can be the subject of scientific research. It must be said that this rarely happens, because the animals most often at the center of activity in laboratories are rodents. “The relationship with dogs dates back twenty thousand years ago as Harari tells us in Sapiens, so if I proposed to my students to do research on them, I would have 100% objections” reminds Science, Please of Prof. Sitia among the founders of DIBIT – biotechnology department of San Raffaele.
“The choice of rodents is therefore utilitarian, because the mouse offers a good system and then our affection towards them is less than what we have for dogs and cats. Anyone understands this”
Wellbeing to be protected
When a scientific experiment involves the presence of animals, there is a need for someone to guarantee their well-being from food to veterinary care to cleanliness. This is the role of Giuliano Grignaschi, head of the Animal Care sector at the University of Milan. “Animal welfare means the duty to reduce suffering to a minimum, because it would be foolish to say that a laboratory animal does not suffer at all,” says Grignaschi. “Animals must be cared for 365 days a year, including August Bank Holiday and Christmas.” A role that of Doctor Grignaschi is foreseen by the Italian law which is one of the most rigid in the world and which provides, as reported also by the Ministry of Health, that each breeder, supplier and user establishes a Responsible Body within their own structures to Animal Welfare (OPBA). In the background the principle of the 3Rs: replace, reduce, refine which must always guide the use of animals in any type of research. An indication to use them more and more as a last resort, preferring the alternatives that technology increasingly offers between simulators and artificial intelligence
An inconvenient truth
But is research on animals still necessary? Both Grignaschi and Sitia reiterate in the episode of Science, Please, what was also written in the book: unfortunately and painfully, it is still needed. “The key point is always the damage/benefit assessment” – states Dr. Grignaschi – “so it is clear that when we talk about the use of animals in research the damage is evident while it is complicated to understand when the benefit will arrive. But Covid teaches how much the studies of 20 years ago on Sars-Cov1, in unsuspecting times, then brought benefits in quickly finding a vaccine against Sars-Cov2”
“We always try to limit the use of the animal model for both ethical and economic reasons” – adds Prof. Sitia. “Anyone who uses animals when he has alternatives is simply crazy. But when it is necessary we must use them, because otherwise we risk catastrophes like with Thalidomide which caused thousands of victims in Europe precisely because of the lack of testing.”
But where does the title of the book come from? To find out, all you have to do is listen to the new episode of Science, Please