For half of the world’s diseases there is still no cure. In the pursuit of solutions, millions of experimental animals are sacrificed every year.
Animal research has been crucial for the discovery of knowledge providing a countless number of medicines. However, an eager challenger is about to get more attention: computer simulations. Will computer simulations, in time, substitute animal research and thus give medicine an ethical leap forward?
To simulate a body
Mathematical equations can be used to describe nature. This is true for both the non-living and the living world. Equations can tell us how our brain cells communicate and how the heart beats. Some equations are too complicated to be solved with pen and paper, but we can solve them using computers.
The solutions to these equations imitate the real world and we call them simulations. Simulations can substitute animal research under certain circumstances, just like a flight simulator can substitute real flights while a pilot is training. There is just one disadvantage: simulations are not correct. Computer simulations can do nothing more than to imitate the real world, they are not a true copy. To obtain meaningful results, the simulations must be verified using real-world data recorded from animals. Furthermore, some parts of nature are still too complex to be satisfactorily described by a computer.
Targeted animal research
Some medical research is of such a nature that animals must be part of the experiment. The silver lining is that computer simulations will at least help us do more targeted experiments.
It is not always clear how an animal experiment should be designed in order to confirm or reject a hypothesis. Let us take the project I work on as an example: a brain research project called DigiBrain. In DigiBrain, scientists from different fields, like physics and biology, work together. We search for the link between genes and mental disorders. Studies show that there is a correlation between genes and certain mental disorders, like schizophrenia. However, exactly which genes cause the correlation and exactly what they can tell us about the disorder is still largely unknown.
An overwhelming task
These so-called “risk genes”, play an important role for different processes of the brain. Some of them may affect how a single cell functions, other may affect how cells communicate. To figure out which genes are responsible for what is an overwhelming task. With animal research alone it is not only difficult to know where to start, but there is also a limit to what we can actually measure.
This is where computer simulations come into play. Simulations can be used in the initial phase while planning and designing experiments. When the simulations reveal something interesting, we can further investigate this by carrying out biological experiments. The results from the animal experiments can then in turn be used to “reality check” the initial simulations. Computer simulations thus enable scientists to collect more useful information from every animal.
A critical perspective
Computer simulations can to a certain extent substitute animal research, but more importantly they give us more valuable information from the animals we actually make use of. At the same time, it is important to be critical.It is highly important to validate the simulation results, and validation is consequently a great responsibility and a big part of the job of a computational scientist. One has to make sure that the assumptions made are reasonable, and that the answers provided make sense. Wrong simulations can mislead experimentalists to study the less interesting ideas or to end up at the wrong conclusions.
There is a limit to what computer simulations can do for us, but more and better equations are under development. Our knowledge of how mathematical equations can describe the processes within our bodies is rapidly improving. If we continue to seek this understanding, we will not only discover more ways to treat human diseases, but also be able to go to sleep with a better conscience at night.
A similar text in Norwegian was first published in Aftenposten April 6 2017.