Animal Rights activists base their opposition to the use of animals in resesearch on two fundamentally different bases or, for those who hedge their bets, both together.
First, there is the person who says they don't care whether the results of such research are valid or not, the research is intrinsically immoral. Such people are simply exercising their right to worship as they please, and there is no point in arguing with them, because their belief is an article of faith — they cannot be persuaded away from their belief by facts or logic. Ingrid Newkirk's declaration that "Even if animal research resulted in a cure for AIDS, we'd be against it." (Vogue, 1989) is an example of just such an "article of faith" (no fact, no logic, will cause her to change her mind).
Then, there are those who claim to oppose research because the differences between animals and humans are so great that you can't extrapolate from animal experiments to the human condition. This defines the "lacks scientific merit" camp.
It's worth debating these people, because even if you don't change the minds of very many of them, by debating them you can influence the minds of third parties, showing them that while animals are not identical to humans, they are close enough so that we can learn worthwhile things from experimenting on them.
Up until now, Dr. Jerry Vlasak has steadfastly maintained that animals are too different from humans to be of use in biomedical research. Now, he's changed his mind — crossed the threshold, in fact — and admitted as that we can learn things from animal based research, though he still opposes it on purely moral/ethical grounds.
The 25th anniversary of animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) brought out activists of more than one kind, as a coalition of advocates for AIDS patients chose the occasion to launch a campaign criticizing PETA’s stance against animal testing in medical research.
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"The whole notion of testing on animals or doing research on animals was viable when we knew so little, but today we’re trying to distinguish facts based on individual humans," commented C. Ray Greek, MD, president of the California-based Americans for Medical Advancement, a self-described patient advocacy group that opposes animal experimentation from a scientific standpoint, not an ethical one.
We still don't know enough to dispense with animals altogether, Dr. Greek's protestations to the contrary not withstanding. It is particularly important for the reader to understand that key breakthroughs in research occur when things don't go as predicted — that's when animal based research is particularly important (the Thalidomide story is one such example.)
And then, there are issues interacting systems, and/or the functioning of the nervous system: to what extent is peripheral sensory innervation important in protecting joints? How do Central Pattern Generators work, and what is the role of sensory innervation in building new ones, or maintaining established ones? How do Central Pattern Generators decay?
Questions of this sort happen to be in my (former) area of expertise, and I defy Dr. Greek or anyone else to test a hypothesis about any of these questions using tissue culture (an animal-based technique, one based on serum, a fluid derived from blood, that AR advocates (and, alas some scientists) like to pretend is a "non-animal alternative" to whole animal research), computer models, or any other technique that doesn't use whole, intact animals.
I could wax for hours on the significance of such research, but I'll spare you . . .
“I don’t think we ought to be treating non-human animals any different than we treat other disenfranchised -- or less powerful, I should say -- groups in humans.” -- Dr. Jerry Vlasak
This, of course, is an ideological/religious view, not a scientific one.
"Today, we are studying diseases at the genetic level, and at the genetic level, even a man and a woman are different -- and two species are incredibly different," Greek noted.
Dr. Greek needs to familiarize himself with the literature . . . for the lay amongst my readers, Dr. Greek is saying, essentially, that because we are understanding metallurgy in ever greater detail, we don't have to worry about the way we assemble automobiles so that the parts work together.
Greek believes that the time and money spent on animal testing could be better put toward human-based research involving technology, as well as in vitro methods that use testing in artificial environments outside living organisms. He and Pippin both pointed to positron emission tomography (PET) microdosing as a human-based research technology, in which a human subject is given a very small amount of a drug and then imaging techniques are used to follow it through the body.
PET is fine, but it is one tool of many in our biomedical armamentarium. It is not a substitute for the use of whole animals.
"If you do this test, in combination with the usual clinical testing that we do and the usual in-vitro testing and so on and so on, that would give you a far safer drug supply than you have now," Greek said.
Pippin added that PET microdosing is a "dramatic example of how you can apply a superior test and eliminate animal testing at the same time."
In some cases . . . but PET is hardly a panacea.
However, as Lin pointed out, microdosing studies "are purposely designed not to cause toxicity." Thus, he said, "the true ‘safety’ of the drug used at a realistic dose cannot be obtained by such studies. Microdosing studies in humans cannot be used to bypass thorough preclinical animal studies and it would be dangerous to do so since the behavior of the drug at a therapeutic dose would be unknown."
Greek also proposed that the scientific community should be "looking at these drugs on a genetic basis." He said that genetic profiles of thousands of people should be collected and then the drug should be tested on each of the genetic profiles in vitro to see which genes are turned on and which are turned off.
"That’s what’s going to give us safe drugs for you as opposed to me as opposed to your mother… testing these drugs on your DNA and then your mother’s DNA and then my DNA," Greek commented.
Dr. Nancy Haigwood countered that the complex interactions that take place in the body cannot be predicted. "I frankly would be appalled to see humans in Phase I trials being given drugs that have the potential for extreme toxicities or death," she said.
Let's invite Dr. Greek to make his wife or children guinea pigs to test his theory . . .
Haigwood, who is the director of the viral vaccines program at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute and professor of pathobiology and microbiology at the University of Washington, explained that tests for toxicity must be done on every compound in a drug being considered. "That’s the main use of animals, really, in drug testing," she said.
One of the big problems I face when dealing with such issues is that few people understand the difference between product/compound testing, preclinical trials, and basic research. I did basic research — research in which I attempted to identify fundamental biological processes and interactions that could be exploited by other scientists, those with an eye focussed more on diagnosis and treatment than was my own eye.
Nothing I did would, by itself, result in a new diagnostic procedure, or a treatment for a disease. But my research did contribute to how those who study such things would approach their own problems. That's important. (I won't bore you with details, though I could make a compelling case for how the system works, on a conceptual level.)
Proponents of animal testing do not deny the validity of alternative research techniques that also include computer models and in vitro studies on human tissue samples, but say that these methods should be used in conjunction with animal testing.
"All these things are not used at the exclusion of other things," asserted laboratory animal veterinarian John Young, who serves as director of comparative medicine at the California-based Cedars-Sinai Research Institute. "They’re all used together and it’s a progressive process. If you take the animals out of that stepwise progression, the whole thing falls apart." Young is also chairman of Americans for Medical Progress, a Virginia-based organization that advocates the use of animals in biomedical research.
Correct — otherwise, you're saying you don't need a steering wheel for your car because you've got the metallurgy right, and it has 4 wheels and a functioning engine and transmission.
Aside from toxicity testing, animals are also used in research studies to gain information for drug development. Again, critics like Greek and Pippin feel that animal-based research conducted for this purpose is ineffective, pointing to HIV research as an example. "Between in vitro research and human clinical research, that’s where the advances in HIV treatment have come from," Greek noted.
The problem with pointing to examples is that they are only that: examples. Step away from HIV and into the effects of unfocussed ESWL on surrounding tissues, the manner in which neuromuscular reflexes protect joints, or how heart muscle reacts to infarct and the early events of its molecular biological recovery in a living chest, and things aren't so clear . . .
Pippin agreed, asserting that not one useful HIV medication has been developed from animal studies in more than two decades of research.
Haigwood, who uses animal models in her research, said it is true that "we didn’t need animals to get all these drugs for HIV… because we knew what the mechanism was, we knew what the compound was… so there was very little risk in using antiviral drugs without animal model testing."
But, she said, "they did go through toxicity testing [on animals]."
If only it were true that finding more effective drugs for HIV/AWIDS would explain the etiopathogenesis of osteoarthritis, the formation of Central Pattern Generators, or how heart muscle recovers after infarct . . .
Although Haigwood conceded that the argument about the inessential role of animal models in the development of useful HIV drugs is a "strong one," she did point to one specific example where animal-based research played a role in the development of a drug that is now used in HIV treatment. The drug, PMPA, was tested on macaque monkeys in an experiment conducted in the mid-1990s by Dr. Che-Chung Tsai, and his research colleagues at the University of Washington.
One animal rights activist, who has used the scientific argument against animal experimentation, does agree that animal research has produced some benefits for humankind. "They have discovered things in animals that have been useful in human beings. It’s rare, but it does happen," commented Dr. Jerry Vlasak.
I'm glad Dr. Vlasak has seen the light, but animal based basic research is the foundation upon which a great many breakthroughs in treatment and diagnosis occur, irrespective of drug testing in preclinical trials. True, basic research seldom if ever produces something that is directly applicable in the clinics, but it certainly provides the building blocks upon which important clinical discoveries rest.
"To be quite honest with you, I don’t really care too much about the scientific argument because I don’t really care whether it’s scientifically valid or not," stated Vlasak, who is a press officer for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office (NAALPO). "I think it’s important to make the moral arguments because I think those are the important ones." The California-based organization serves as a liaison between the press and various groups in the underground animal liberation movement that engage in illegal direct actions on behalf of captive animals, according to the NAALPO website. [My emphasis . . . ed]
"I don’t think we ought to be treating non-human animals any different than we treat other disenfranchised -- or less powerful, I should say -- groups in humans," Vlasak asserted. "I think people with AIDS, many of them are homosexual -- should be even more aware of oppression."
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To his credit, Dr. Vlasak has admitted what motivates his opposition to animal based research: his is a faith-based objection, not one based on scientific merit, and I applaud him for his honesty . . .
When all is said and done, I'm a strong believer in religious freedom.