To understand physiological systems, cell culture experiments are limited since they do not allow to study interactions between cells and organs and the role of the local environment for cell function. The additional use of animals for experiments is however, always a question of ethics which must be answered.

Read more about animal experiments and alternatives

Animal studies provide the platform to understand the biological process involved in health and disease and allow students and researchers to determine the underlying events in a systems-wise manner. The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Animals by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1978 became one important step in the recognition of the importance of living beings, aiming at an ever more ethical human behavior [].

The 3R Principle of reduction, refinement, and replacement of animal use first introduced by Russell and Burch in 1959 as well as technical advances in culturing cells led to progressive development of various cell culture models. However, cell culture models have the limitation of studying combinatorial interactions involving cells, organs and the environment for understanding physiological functions. In some, but not all cases, in vitro 3-Dimensional tissue culture models offer a replacement to animal tissue models in laboratory exercises and in research studies yielding an “ethical edge”. Preclinical drug development is now aided by the development of Organs on Chips (OOC) as a substitute for animal model. But animal experiments are still indispensable to fully understand the function of proteins, enzymes and genes in a complex organism and to determine their significance , see the following example on a blood vessel in vivo
Intravital microscopy (fluorescence technique) of a mouse vein

The video shows intravital microscopy of a mouse vein (with side branch to the left) in vivo. (courtesy of Dr. Tahir, cardiovascular physiology Munich). White blood cells (and the vessel wall) are labelled in red, blood platelets in green. Vascular inflammation led to adhesion of white blood cells to the vessel wall. The following interaction of adhering white blood cells with platelets arriving with streaming blood is a main cause for inflammatory thrombus formation and vessel closure. While the underlying signalling processes can be better studied in detail by cell (culture) experiments their functional effects can only be analysed in intact blood vessels (which still cannot be mimicked by any culture techniques)

Animal experiments in teaching: The American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS) []  recognizes that “the appropriate and humane use of animals in the elementary and secondary classrooms can provide significant educational benefits to the students, and that a positive interaction between students and animals in the classroom enhances not only scientific learning but also provides an additional avenue promoting the development and growth of the students’ sense of responsibility and respect for all living things.” In universities, animals are used for teaching in a wide range of disciplines that include anatomy, anaesthesiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, physiology, zoology, surgery, neurosurgery, and urology [].

The use of live animals in the teaching of physiology at the university level promotes a policy that involves respect for all forms of life supplemented with videos, models and computer simulations so that “properly trained biomedical scientists will develop their respect for living organisms, will be sensitive to ethical issues, and will contribute to an educated public opinion about living organisms and the environment.” [].  

Moreover, true scientific progress requires that research is performed with high standards as to the responsibility of researchers and the reliability of the results. This has always been subject to the formulation of ethical principles by science organizations, including national physiologic societies. IUPS is supporting these efforts and has established its own committee on ethics. As early as 1997, “Ethics of Life” (1997, UNESCO) was published following a meeting at UNESCO arranged by the Ethics Committee of IUPS. ‘Concerning Ethical Principles for Physiological Research on Humans and Animals’ a resolution was passed at the New Zealand IUPS Congress held in 2002 (

The Ethics Committee of IUPS

The ethics committee is chaired by Andrea Calkovska (Slovakia)

Andrea Calkovska

Members of the committee are Kátia De Angelis (Brazil), Ibiyemi Olatunji-Bello (Nigeria), Andrea Calkovska (Slovakia) Catherine B. Chan (Canada), Hidetoshi Ishibashi (Japan), Kenji Kansaku (Japan) and Bill Yates (USA)

Reports and Activities

Latin America: The Brazilian Society of Physiology (SBFis) organized a session on scientific integrity during its Congress (2019)  where the current coordinator of CONCEA delivered a lecture on “Dilemmas & Perspectives of Animal Experimentation in Brazil” . Furthermore, the Federal University of São Paulo, where Prof De Angelis teaches, has started a regular postgraduate course  in the Department Psychobiology on “Ethical Principles in Scientific Research” and an e-learning course in ‘Ethics in Animal Experimentation’

The Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching’ (ANZCCART ) recognizes that communication strategies and media upskilling needs to be included so that researchers communicate both the outcome of research and welfare of the animals used.  Some of the key issues that are being currently addressed concern manuscripts for publication that include the absence of detailed reporting of methods, animal numbers, the process of allocating animals to groups, and mentioning blinding of groups, if done.

Europe: Prof  Andrea Čalkovská conveyed that at the recent Joint Meeting of The Slovak and Czech Physiological Societies a rigorous discussion took place about the shortfalls of completely switching over to the "3 R's" approach in Physiology (Replacement, Reduction, Refinement) in preference to holistic models as it has several limitations- eminent amongst which was that cell cultures studies do not fully show what happens in the whole body. Concerns  were also raised about the hitherto overlooked sex bias of applying data from male subjects (animals as well as human) to females and vice versa.

Africa: Prof Olatunji-Bell organized a workshop (2020) on behalf of The Physiology Society of Nigeria at The Lagos State University College of Medicine, Lagos to update the medical student and research fraternity of all Lagos medical schools including research scientists and technologists from other Institutes of Lagos about current practises in ensuring ethical conduct in animal and human (clinical) research studies.

Asia: Prof Kitazawa has initiated the Research Ethics Committee of the Physiological Society of Japan to hold a symposium on ethics during the Annual Meeting of the Japan Physiological Society : in 2020 “The ethics, laws, and guidelines for human and animal researches”