Mouse installation

Science and Animal Research

On this page you can find more information on why and how we use animals in our research as well as how we participate in public debates on the issue.

The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in the Helmholtz Association is the largest non-university biomedical research institute in Berlin. The research conducted at the MDC is of excellent quality: In spring 2012, an international group of experts awarded the MDC the best rating of “outstanding”.

Scientists at the MDC are working to decipher molecular mechanisms in cells, organs and organ systems. Through their research they hope to gain an understanding of the processes and the molecular causes of disease and health in humans, to provide more targeted treatments and improve diagnosis and prevention.

The human body is extremely complex. To gain a detailed understanding of the processes involved in a disease, how a therapeutic substance works, and resolve many other questions of medical relevance, it is usually necessary to examine a whole, living body with its many tissues and organs. Since such experiments can't be performed directly on humans until safety is ensured as far as possible, animal experiments are usually the only alternative.

We investigate the root causes of disease

At the current level of science, we will not be able to make advances in biomedical research without the use of animal testing for the foreseeable future.

Medical research has reduced pain and suffering and saved the lives of millions of people. But for most human diseases, existing treatments only relieve symptoms rather than addressing the root cause of a problem. With the basic research we carry out at the MDC, we want to help change that. We investigate what causes diseases to help better recognize, treat and prevent them.

Alternative methods

A large part of biomedical research is not dependent on animal experiments. Scientists often work with molecules, cells, tissue cultures, or computer models. Experiments that use human cell material and epidemiological studies also deliver valuable results. The work of many groups at the MDC is solely based on such methods, which do not involve animals. We cannot, however, work entirely without animals, so other groups use a combination of animal experiments and other methods.

Animal experiments are essential

Animal testing is an integral part of biomedical research. It is usually the only way researchers can determine the influence of genes or a new active therapeutic substance on the functions of complex organ systems such as the cardiovascular or nervous system.

If we want to gain detailed knowledge of how the human body works or simply understand what happens when it is afflicted by a disease, we have to examine the living organism as a whole. Understanding and treating diseases requires taking into account the interactions between various cell types and organs. No test tube experiment, however sophisticated, can simulate Alzheimer’s disease, and even the best computer simulations have to be verified on living organisms.

Biomedical research at the MDC focuses on a wide range of scientific questions. The methods and organisms that are used depend on the particular question under investigation: Scientists at the MCD work primarily with rodents – i.e. mice and rats – but also with zebrafish, frogs, fruit flies, flatworms and threadworms. For more information, see the “Facts and figures” section.

Genetically modified animals

Recent decades have seen the development of an important branch of research based on genetically modified animals. Nowadays the genes of mice, rats and zebrafish are easy to modify. Some of the animals used at the MDC contain altered genetic material with additional or “silenced” genes.
Such transgenic animals can be used as models to investigate a variety of diseases, for example by ascertaining the role that specific genes play in biology or a disease. If a gene is silenced in mice, and they develop diabetes or high blood pressure, this is an indication that the gene that has been modified may play a role in these conditions.

With the help of the mice, the causes and developments of diseases can be investigated and understood at a molecular level.

Such experiments can also contribute to the development of new drugs.

Animal welfare at the MDC

No one at the MDC likes causing animals distress or taking their lives. We are highly aware of the responsibility we bear toward the animals we use, and we take German animal welfare legislation, which is among the strictest worldwide, very seriously.

The three Rs of animal protection

Good science and good animal welfare go hand in hand. Stress or suffering on the part of an animal may distort the results of experiments. For example, stress leads to an increase in the release of certain hormones and can affect animals’ blood pressure and metabolism.

These considerations led scientists to introduce the principle of “three Rs”: reduce, refine, replace. Scientists always endeavor to obtain the maximum information from the smallest number of experiments (reduce, refine), to limit animals’ suffering to a minimum (refine), or to gain the intended information without animal experiments (replace). Many researchers at the MDC work on improving the methods and technologies needed to achieve these aims. These include “omics” methods (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics), which we can use to obtain huge quantities of data from just a few experiments (reduce, refine), and imaging techniques such as ultrasound and MRT, which are non-invasive and therefore much gentler (refine). At the IPL, the new animal house that is currently under construction at the MDC, we will expand our non-invasive imaging capabilities.

Legal framework

Germany has some of the strictest animal protection laws in the world. Since 2002, animal welfare has even received mention in the national constitution. We adhere to the laws and ethical standards that are in place.

The authority responsible for these matters in Berlin is the Berlin State Office for Health and Social Affairs (LaGeSo). Its decisions are supported by an animal experimentation committee which at all times includes representatives of animal welfare organizations (one third of the members), scientists, and an ethics commissioner.

Every experiment must be justified, precisely described, and then authorized by the animal welfare authorities before any animals become involved in a scientific project. The expected scientific and medical benefits of every animal experiment must be weighed against the estimated degree of suffering that the animals will experience. In addition, it is standard practice before any experiment to undertake a comprehensive literature review to make sure the experiment has not already been conducted elsewhere and would therefore be unnecessary. In short, the three Rs must be adhered to. During experiments, the MDC’s animal protection officers check compliance with the standards and advise researchers when necessary. The MDC currently employs five such officers, one of whom works full time. The responsible authorities can check compliance with the standards at any time. All experiments are logged, and the number of animals used is reported annually to the LaGeSo. 

The MDC supports the European directive on the protection of laboratory animals

Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes became law in November 2010. The MDC supports the Directive as it improves animal welfare standards across Europe and compels researchers to replace animal experiments with other methods where possible, to reduce the number of laboratory animals, and to refine their experiments. “Refining” includes, for example, choosing methods that minimize animals’ pain and suffering. The Directive sets minimum standards for the housing and care of laboratory animals, prescribes regular inspections, and requires researchers to publish descriptions of experiments in terms that laypeople can understand.

In March 2015, the MDC and many other European research institutions published a statement in support of the Directive.

Facts and Figures

Facts and Figures 2016

Number of animals used for scientific purposes at the MDC

Animal species at the MDC

MDC scientists use mainly mice and rats for their research. The close evolutionary relationship between these animals and humans makes them highly valuable for research into human diseases.

Other species are also important in the institute's research, at lower numbers. While animals such as zebrafish or clawed frogs (Xenopus) bear less similarity to humans, they have other advantages for experimental work. They lay eggs, for example, making it much easier to study the way their embryos develop than in species where the early stages of life take place inside a mother's body.   

Approximately half of the number of rodents (mice and rats) and most of the fish have undergone genetic modifications. These animals are immensely important in helping scientists understand the connections between genes and states of health and disease, an essential step in designing treatments.

Type of experiments

Most of the animals reported by the MDC were eventually sacrificed to provide scientists with samples of cells or tissues that couldn't be obtained in any other way. These animals appear in the category "non-recovery", which also also includes the number of animals that died while placed under anesthesia for a procedure.

In many other types of experiments, animals suffer only mildly. A small number of experiments involve severe suffering; here the animals are treated with analgesics and other measures are taken to ease their distress. Everyone regards this situation as an unfortunate necessity, a trade-off which balances the animals' distress against the potential for meaningful gains in medical or scientific knowledge. At every stage, scientists pursue the principle of the "three Rs" (reduce, refine, replace): the aim is to keep the number of animals as low as possible, to use alternative methods whenever possible, and to minimize pain and suffering to the best of their ability. Read more about this here.

Severity categories according to EU Directive 2010/63/EU

on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes

Full text of EU Directive 2010/63/EU (PDF)

  • Non-recovery:
    Procedures which are performed entirely under general anaesthesia from which the animal shall not recover consciousness.
  • Mild:
    Procedures on animals as a result of which the animals are likely to experience short-term mild pain, suffering or distress, as well as procedures with no significant impairment of the well-being or general condition of the animals.
  • Moderate:
    Procedures on animals as a result of which the animals are likely to experience short-term moderate pain, suffering or distress, or long-lasting mild pain, suffering or distress as well as procedures that are likely to cause moderate impairment of the well-being or general condition of the animals.
  • Severe:
    Procedures on animals as a result of which the animals are likely to experience severe pain, suffering or distress, or long-lasting moderate pain, suffering or distress as well as procedures, that are likely to cause severe impairment of the well-being or general condition of the animals.

In Dialogue

We take the debate surrounding animal welfare and animal testing very seriously. No one at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in the Helmholtz Association treats the topic lightly. We are aware of the ethical debates surrounding the topic and regularly engage in public dialogues on the topic.

The MDC supports the Basel Declaration

All signatories of the Basel Declaration on animal research, which was passed in November 2010, have agreed to uphold ethical standards and promote greater transparency and communication on animal research. The MDC signed the Declaration in 2012.

Basel Declaration

Encouraging communication and information

The MDC has been a member of the European Animal Research Association (EARA) since 2014. This association is committed to better informing the public about humane animal research. Other members in Germany include the Max Planck Society.

European Animal Research Association (EARA)

Understanding animal experimentation

"Tierversuche verstehen" ("Understanding animal experimentation") is an initiative of the Alliance of Research Organizations in Germany. The aim of the project is to give scientists an opportunity to provide a factual basis for discussions on the need and use of animal experiments as well as possibilities for alternatives in research. The initiative is directed at the public and media, and its website offers a range of informational material, contacts to experts and opportunities for discussion. The MDC is a member of the Helmholtz Association, which is a partner in the Alliance of Research Organisations.

Tierversuche verstehen (German)

Alliance of Research Organisations (German)

Long Night of the Sciences

The MDC participates in the Long Night of the Sciences (Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften) held in Berlin every spring. We offer guided tours as part of this event, and the Animal Facilities department of the MDC is represented with information stands. Interested members of the public can also attend lectures on the topic of animal research or take part in laboratory experiments themselves to find out more about the methods (including non-animal methods) we use at the MDC.

Reporting on research

We publish updates on the scientific work of our researchers on our MDC Insights page. To find articles on the topic of animal experiments, simply enter the search term “Animal research”.

Permanent exhibition

Visitors can find a permanent exhibition on our research activities in the Hermann von Helmholtz building – the MDC’s administrative center. This exhibition includes comprehensive information on animal welfare in Germany in general, and on how we keep animals at the MDC.

White Tub

Artist Boris Hars-Tschachotin designed his own laboratory space in a reinterpretation of the “Morris water maze” behavioral experiment, which uses mice for research on Alzheimer’s disease. The resulting installation piece “White Tub – Schwimmlabyrinth” combines a walk-in experiential space with an all-round video projection. This installation is also on display in the Hermann von Helmholtz building and can be visited upon request.

More information

Various organizations publish comprehensive and up-to-date information on the topic of animal testing.

Animal testing – what is the public opinion in Europe?

The University of Rotterdam investigated this question by developing the PlayDecide game “Animal testing in biomedical research.” Information is provided on all important aspects of the topic, and at the end of the game participants choose one of four positions – from wholesale rejection to wholesale approval.

You can view the results and compare them with similar activities by the global community.

Pro-Test Deutschland

This website provides general information on the use of animals in scientific research and publishes articles on current affairs and studies related to the topic.

Pro-Test Deutschland

Understanding Animal Research

This website provides transparent information for various groups with an interest in the topic, such as school students and journalists. Understanding Animal Research is a British organization based in London with more than 100 member institutions.

Understanding Animal Research

Animal testing in research

The German Reference Centre for Ethics in the Life Sciences (DRZE) publishes detailed reports on its website discussing the significance and legal aspects of animal experiments as well as key questions surrounding the ethical debate.

German Reference Centre for Ethics in the Life Sciences (DRZE)

Animal welfare as a national objective

The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) is responsible for animal welfare matters in Germany. The ministry’s website pools information for the public on the topic of animal welfare in research.

Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL)