Feb 29, 2008

animal testing

I'm a bioengineer and a vegetarian.

This causes some interesting complications.

First and foremost, I oppose causing animals, or anybody else, to suffer unnecessarily. (This begs the question, is suffering sometimes necessary?)

But I also disagree with animal rights activists who jump to the conclusion that research on animals is always 100% wrong, mostly because their opinions seem to be build on shaky ground. Let's have a look at what PETA's website says about animal testing:

"Educating people and encouraging them to avoid fat and cholesterol, quit smoking, reduce alcohol and other drug consumption, exercise regularly, and clean up the environment will save more human lives and prevent more human suffering than all the animal tests in the world."

I think this is the kind of argument that loses PETA its credibility. It's true that promoting a healthy lifestyle probably would save more lives than animal research if we suddenly decided to spend all our animal research dollars on education. (In the USA right now, Lipitor, a statin, is making 14 billion dollars per year. Thats the size of the GDP of Tanzania or Senegal. And high cholesterol is greatly influences by weight, activity, and diet. So yes, it's a significant lifestyle problem.)

But that's not the point. Clearly, not all diseases are lifestyle related. People don't only get sick due to bad choices, they get sick because of all kinds of factors. I'm not going to flesh out an argument now for why we should save peoples' lives when they need medical attention, so I'll just leave that as a given.

PETA's argument is shallow. It implies that the only purpose of medical science is to save us from disease we should have avoided. The fact that this is so obviously untrue robs them of credibility.

Once we've decided to treat disease whenever possible, we are immediately faced with the question of animal testing. Complex, deadly diseases often require therapies which are themselves complex and dangerous. PETA says:

"If the pharmaceutical industry switched from animal experiments to quantum pharmacology and in vitro tests, we would be better protected from harmful drugs, not less protected."

Again, this is blatantly false. While in vitro testing is very useful sometimes, it just can't simulate the way a drug will act within the larger world of the body. There is no circulatory system in a petri dish, for example. No organs. While animal testing is far from perfect, it offers a much more realistic model of the human body. It's TRUE that animal testing sometimes results in a drug which appears safe for humans, but turns out not to be in the long run. PETA implies that this problem will be solved by using in vitro testing. That's just plain false.

There are currently some attractive alternatives to animal testing. I believe they should be used whenever possible. Some reputable sources, such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine think that animal testing is no longer necessary. Others say it's still irreplaceable, especially for animal models of certain diseases, and for testing "discovered" drugs, the mechanisms (and therefore risk factors) for which may be completely unknown.

Let's look at some reasons why animal testing is currently unacceptable. There are MANY.

1. Until 1989, veterinarians were taught to ignore animal pain. Many veterinarians practicing today were educated in this way. It is only very, very recently that any concern for animal welfare has been demonstrated, and standards are still incredibly low.

2. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) doesn't include mice, rats, or birds. In 2002, the AWA was specifically amended so as NOT to include those species. It also specifically excludes farm animals. Because of this, very few of the animals that are tested on are actually protected.

3. While pain management is now common in some veterinary hospitals, research animals are rarely given any pain medication. Sometimes procedures are designed to be less painful than they could possibly be, but painkillers are generally thought to be too expensive and difficult to control. It is legal to perform ANY experiment on a research animal as long as it can be scientifically justified.

4. Research animals are given absolutely minimal room or comfort. They live in tiny cages. While their cages are often clean, there have been many documented cases of research animals drowning in their own feces. They are not given toys, playtime, or attention. The difference in standards between standards of treatment for pets and standards of treatment for lab animals is enormous, even though the animals have the same needs.

5. Some animal research and testing is completely ridiculous. Skin products are often tested by injecting the product in to the eye of a live rabbit, and looking for swelling, oozing, and pain. This is ridiculous (there's even an approved substitute, EpiDerm, for use on human volunteers), but it's not the only example of such cruelty. And I think it goes without saying that we do NOT need to be testing eyeshadow on mice. There are plenty of substances that make safe cosmetics (minerals, mostly). And anyway, so many mainstream cosmetics are mutagens (one survey found that 884 chemicals in cosmetics are toxic) that we should rethink the whole process anyway.

Basically, I think that the pressure should be on and that alternatives to animal testing should be found within 10 years. I'm willing to believe that currently, some animal testing may still be essential. (I think this is largely because small animals like mice have such quick life cycles compared to human beings - you can get data about 80 times faster in mice. Once we get computer models of entire vertebrates, this will no longer be necessary.)

In the mean time, I think there is NO excuse for not raising standards of animal care significantly. Yes, it costs money, but what really infuriates me is the way Americans often pander to their pets - sometimes buying them diamonds and clothing, which I have yet to see any pet demonstrate affection for, by the way - and then completely forget that the animals being used for research (and, yes, FOOD) are so very, very similar. It's not just mice and zebrafish, people. Cats are frequently used in neurological investigations, half of which officially cause "pain and distress" (though that definition of pain doesn't include any suffering induced by boredom, poor living conditions, or neglect). Dogs, especially beagles, are used in all kinds of biomedical research.

Some people say that a measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable minorities.

**I have sources for almost all of the facts in this post; if anybody wants them, just ask.**

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As the owner of a company that manufactures (2) of the world's most popular products for ophthalmology, I routinely refuse to sell to any concern that uses lab animals in testing. If I catch any of my distributors selling I bounce them.

We also are coming out with veterinary versions of our products. We have developed the phrase "tested on humans" and will be marketing as such.