Philosophy - Index > Testing - Index

April 15, 2005

It's a myth that animal testing leads to human cures

Activists around the globe will spend April 17-23 - World Week for Animals in Laboratories - working to raise awareness about the horrors of animal experimentation in medical and psychological research and product testing.

Some people believe this use of animals in medical research is a "necessary evil" to save human lives. But this notion is under increasing attack not only from activists, but also from the medical establishment.

After more than a century of experimenting on animals, many researchers now question the validity of extrapolating findings from one species to another.

The model started in the 1800s, when early medical researchers, noting basic anatomical similarities among mammals, concluded that research on other mammals could be applied to humans.

Major advancements in molecular biology, however, reveal many more differences than similarities among species.

"As we become more sophisticated in our technology and investigate at a molecular level, we find more differences than similarities," noted researcher Cheryl F. Scott at the Temple University Thrombosis Research Center. "The knowledge gained from animal research needs ultimately to be applied to human clinical situations, and in many cases, it cannot. This results in the misleading of scientific thought, as well as hindrance of progress."

Many researchers now point to the reliance on animal research as a reason why greater medical advancements haven't been made.

A national "war on cancer" was initiated in 1971, with the goal of finding a cure by 1976. More than 30 years and billions of dollars later, we're still searching.

Limitations of animal research in this area are obvious just by watching the evening news. How many times have we heard about a breakthrough discovery that cured cancer in mice, only to never hear of it again because it didn't work on humans?

A recent review of four degenerative neurological diseases - Huntington's chorea, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's - revealed that animal models have contributed little, if anything, to our understanding or treatment of these conditions.

That's because the induced diseases in animals differ fundamentally from the disease manifested in humans.

Research on AIDS was impeded for years as researchers used animals to study the disease. For 10 years, they infected monkeys, rabbits and mice with HIV, but they never could duplicate AIDS in these species. It was the study of human white blood cells that eventually led to discoveries of current treatments in fighting AIDS.

The most important medical research today is the cellular study of human tissue. If we focused resources here, no telling what medical progress could be made.

But first, the FDA will need to reconsider its policy requiring that new treatments first be tested on animals. Pharmaceutical companies, which have a clear financial interest in doing worthwhile research, have begun lobbying the FDA to make this change.

But the FDA's stale bureaucracy is only one obstacle to progressive change.

An entire institution has built up around use of animals in research, and it has become self-perpetuating. Many researchers' livelihood is wrapped around this model, which provides constant funding, journal publications and prestige. The multimillion-dollar industry that provides animals for research also keeps the institution alive. It now is a powerful lobby in Washington, influencing the FDA and the National Institutes of Health, which provides federal funds for medical research.

The notion that animal experimentation is saving human lives is a myth that must be shattered.

If Americans could see behind the closed doors of animal research labs, such an outcry would ensue that the world would come to a halt overnight.

Countless undercover investigations, as well as reports by the USDA, the federal oversight agency, have revealed the misery animals are subjected to for months and even years. Those who defend animal research are correct in calling the practice evil. But it is far from necessary.

Susan Yeich is a faculty member at the Tucson branch of Prescott College.

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