August 29, 2005

I cheered when I heard that Darley Oaks guinea pig farm is to close. As usual this rare victory for the animal rights lobby caused a storm of protest and the usual band of scientists and doctors, many financed by  pharmaceutical companies, were wheeled out to give their one-sided view. Predictably, the focus was on a minority of violent protesters and avoided the real issue: that animal tests offer misleading results and cause suffering for both people and animals.

Many doctors and scientists are growing increasingly concerned about the efficacy of animal experiments. Thousands of them have joined Europeans for Medical Progress, an independent body who oppose animal experimentation solely because it harms people.

Its director, Dr Kathy Archibald, admits that those who speak out risk ostracism from the medical establishment, but they feel compelled to fight for the truth. Testing on animals slows down medical progress because it tells us about animals, not people. Animals are biologically and physiologically different to humans and react differently to many substances. It's no surprise that prescription drugs tested on animals are the fourth leading cause of death in the Western world. The question is, why do animal experiments continue if they are so inaccurate and given that there are more efficient alternatives such as human DNA chips, human tissues, computer programmes that predict human metabolism, and micro-dose studies that reveal the fate of drugs in the human body?

The tradition of animal experiments is so deeply ingrained that the whole medical system is based on it. Researchers attract grants based on how many papers they publish. It's much easier to publish papers using animals than by doing human-based research. Animal breeders, cage and equipment manufacturers and the pharmaceutical industry are multi-billion pound industries. Animal tests help them speed new drugs to market and give them liability protection when their drugs kill or injure.

However, the tide is turning. We recently witnessed the biggest drug disaster in history when the arthritis drug Vioxx was withdrawn after causing heart attacks. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, American doctors who campaign against animal testing, are suing Merck for promoting an unsafe drug on the strength of test results in monkeys.

This was reported on the same day as the one-sided reports about Darley Oaks closing. No one made the link between Vioxx "Extensively animal-tested yet lethal to humans" and the guinea pig farm, but if they had they would have cheered. Guinea pigs are used in medical research for skin irritation testing. Their fur is shaved and medication applied, without anaesthetic, causing agony. But due to a difference in the distribution of blood vessels, their skin reacts differently to ours, rendering most experiments useless. Yet the media avoid these arguments and exaggerate the extremist angle.

In reality, most animal rights protesters are law abiding. However peaceful old ladies don't make waves, and in frustration a minority of extremists take violent action, which acts as propaganda to the vivisectionists.