From replica to instruments: animal models in biomedical research


The ways in which other animal species can be informative about human biology are not exhausted by the traditional picture of the animal model. In this paper, I propose to distinguish two roles which laboratory organisms can have in biomedical research. In the more traditional case, organisms act as surrogates for human beings, and as such are expected to be more manageable replicas of humans. However, animal models can inform us about human biology in a much less straightforward way, by being used as measuring devices—what I call their instrumental role. I first characterize this role and provide criteria for it, before illustrating it with some examples from biomedical research, especially cancer research. In such an instrumental role, phenotypes are not expected to phenocopy human phenomena, but instead have the purely instrumental value of detecting or measuring differences. I argue that the instrumental role is more prevalent than might first be suspected, and that some characteristics of contemporary biomedical research are increasingly shifting the use of laboratory organisms to the instrumental role. Finally, in light of the distinction proposed, I discuss the meaning of the expression “animal model”.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    The 1998 report of the Committee of the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research on New and Emerging Models in Biomedical and Behavioral Research writes begins with the following definition: "A biomedical model is a surrogate for a human being, or a human biologic system, that can be used to understand normal and abnormal function from gene to phenotype and to provide a basis for preventive or therapeutic intervention in human diseases." (Committee on New and Emerging Models in Biomedical and Behavioral Research 1998, p.10).

  2. 2.

    In fact, Keuck (2012) noted that in many cases, complete recapitulation of a disease, for instance, might not even be desirable.

  3. 3.

    Maugeri and Blasimme (2011) discuss how scientists actively correct these disanalogies.

  4. 4.

    Animal models are models which have the property of being animal, i.e. of involving animals, or parts of animals. In contrast, model organisms are organisms with the additional feature of being models, generally because they are expected to be representative of a broader class of organisms (see especially Ankeny and Leonelli 2011, as well as Gayon 2006). The present paper is not about model organisms, but about animals used in the study of human diseases—about animal models and their frontiers.

  5. 5.

    Discussing the intricacies of these distinctions is not the purpose of this paper, and readers are invited to refer to Meunier (2011) for a detailed discussion in the context of experimental biology.

  6. 6.

    For a scientific scientific review of the CSC model, see Visvader and Lindeman (2012) or Valent et al. (2012). For philosophical discussions, see Blasimme (2013).

  7. 7.

    See for instance the debate of melanoma-initiating cells: Schatton et al. (2008), Quintana et al. (2008). Both examples are discussed in more detail in Germain (2014).

  8. 8.

    The information on the drug screening aspects of this zebrafish model comes from the few months I could spent under precious tutoring provided by Cristina Santoriello, at the IFOM-IEO Campus, Milano. The results of the screen have not yet been published, but very similar screens have been published on other mutant larval phenotypes, and they are reviewed in White et al. (2013).

  9. 9.

    “The experimental conditions ‘contain’ the scientific objects in the double sense of this expression: they embed them, and through that very embracement, they restrict and constrain them.” (Rheinberger 1997, p. 29).


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In addition to the participants of the Second European Advanced Seminar in the Philosophy of the Life Sciences (EASPLS 2012), whose contributions are partly found in the present issue, I would like to thank the participants of the workshop “Animal Models, Model Animals? Meanings and Practices in the Biomedical Sciences” (Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, of the University of Manchester, 2012) at which this paper was also presented. I also wish to thank Cristina Santoriello for her precious tutoring, and Marina Mione for welcoming me in her lab. Finally, I am grateful to Maël Lemoine, Jean Gayon, Giuseppe Testa and my FOLSATEC colleagues for interesting discussions on these topics.

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Germain, PL. From replica to instruments: animal models in biomedical research. HPLS 36, 114–128 (2014).

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  • Animal models
  • Modelling
  • Measurement
  • Biomedical research