Not so long ago, I heard a research scientist talking about the work he was doing and its context in the discipline. He was looking at a particular set of genes that were implicated in cancer, and was interested in manipulating those genes as a means of controlling tumor formation. He wanted to work on zebrafish.
There was a number of advantages to zebrafish, he said. For one thing, they’re closely enough related to humans to have the right genes, and so engineering cancer in them ought to provide a decent model for its analogue in humans. The other advantage had to do with their welfare; zebrafish, bless ’em, not being the most neurologically complex of animals, they are less likely to suffer as a result of the experiments, or less likely to suffer to the same degree, than would be, say, mice or rats.
The problem was this: the accepted model for the kind of work he was doing is the mouse model. The speaker found, as a result, that he was effectively forced to use mice – if he didn’t, the chances of getting his research published fell dramatically. That is to say, he faced a paradox: he could reduce suffering by switching species, but in doing so, he’d run the risk that any suffering he did still cause would be entirely in vain, because the research wouldn’t be accepted. So he had either to pursue research that he thought unnecessarily harmful just in order for it not to be wasted; or he had to spend time that he could have spent curing cancer establishing the viability of the zebrafish model, in the hope of generating a massive culture change across the leading oncological journals. Neither of these was an enticing prospect.
Still: there’s cause for optimism. A team at MIT and another at Harvard have been looking at zebrafish as models for human brain activity – again, simple and unlike us as they may be, they are close enough on a molecular level. So it looks like the person to whom I was listening may have allies around the world. Given that – I assume – no researcher wants to cause more suffering than is necessary, this seems like a wholly good thing. If we can ditch rodents in favour of zebrafish, it’s tempting to think that we should. And the more scientists are willing to stick out their necks with a piscine model, the quicker it’ll be accepted.