Animal research: curing mice instead of people
By John Pranger with Anne Birthistle
“We have learned well how to treat cancer in mice and rats but we still can’t cure people.”
- Professor Colin Garner, quoted in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, 2007
The recent arrival in Toronto of 60 monkeys destined for laboratory use shines a spotlight once again on Canada’s R&D community. While the use of animals in medical research and toxicity testing is being scaled back elsewhere in the world—due to a recognition of the inadequacy of this research—in Canada more than 3.3 million animals were subjected to experimentation in publicly-funded institutions in 2010, the latest reporting year. This is an increase of over one million animals in just two years, evidence that the Canadian Council on Animal Care has failed its mandate to phase out animal testing through the 3 R’s [reduce, refine, replace]. Moreover, in 2010, four percent of these animals were subjected to procedures involving severe pain “near, at, or above the pain tolerance threshold of unanesthetized, conscious animals” (category of invasiveness E).
This means more than 132,000 animals suffered prolonged, unendurable pain at the hands of Canadian scientists. And these statistics only hold true of those institutes that report to the CCAC; private facilities are not compelled to follow CCAC guidelines nor to divulge their animal usage.
What makes this sorry situation all the more unacceptable is the plain fact that human medicine has not been improved by the use of animals in this way, all claims to the contrary notwithstanding.
In 2004, the British Medical Journal published an article titled “Where is the evidence that animal research benefits humans?” It states: “The public often consider it axiomatic that animal research has contributed to the treatment of human disease, yet little evidence is available to support this view.”
After over 150 years of animal research, literally billions of animals used, billions of taxpayer dollars spent, and regular news articles claiming that animal research benefits humans, this revelation might surprise you.
One of the most persistent dogmas of western medicine is that the increase in the human lifespan is due to medical intervention, drugs, antibiotics, and vaccines rather than to social reforms. It was not the introduction of any specific therapy that raised life-expectancy but rather the introduction—or re-introduction—of hygienic and sanitary measures, of the sewer system and clean water in the cities (eliminating sources of contagion and infection), as well as better nutrition and housing—all beginning half a century before large-scale vaccination was adopted.
Equally, the enormous damage to human health that has been caused by animal experimentation is little known. Experimenters receive billions of tax and charity dollars to conduct experiments that leading scientists say only serve to hinder and prevent medical progress. Antivivisectionist doctors, surgeons, and scientists have long denounced animal studies as scientifically invalid—but so far with precious little result.
The damage to human health comes in many forms. It ranges from the more visible harm caused by dangerous drugs that have passed animal tests, to more subtle forms such as the medically-invasive attitude that animal experimentation has helped advance. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reported that 92 percent of all the drugs found safe and effective in animal tests were either unsafe or ineffective in humans. We’d be better off just flipping a coin!
From Opren to Fen-Phen, from Thalidomide to Vioxx—withdrawn in 2004 after possibly killing more than 100,000 people; Vioxx had been deemed “safe” after being tested on monkeys and other species—the toll of pharmaceutical harm is a devastating indictment of the way we have allowed established science to flourish while more scientifically credible, effective, and humane non-animal research remains on the back burner.
Important therapies such as chloroform and penicillin were almost derailed altogether due to their inefficacy in the animal model. Nobody can say how many possible cures have been similarly discarded due to their poor performance in animals? Even the most infinitesimal difference between species can render the data derived from one species inapplicable in another. Cancers that spontaneously arise in humans cannot be understood by artificially inducing tumours in animals under unnatural laboratory conditions. As an exasperated Thomas E. Wagner, senior scientist at Ohio University’s Edison Bio-Technology Institute, put it in 1998: “God knows we’ve cured mice of all sorts of tumours. But that isn’t medical research.”
Human arthritis cannot be replicated by experiments which attempt to artificially “re-create” the disease by crushing or hammering the joints of animals. Poisoning the brains of monkeys to simulate Parkinson’s disease results only in Parkinson’s-like symptoms—and all the human tragedy these entail—being forced onto terrified, immobilized monkeys. True Parkinson’s cannot be replicated in this way. Technological advances have led to the development of far more relevant, human-based approaches to these and other human diseases, and must be implemented if we are to conquer human disease.
Most current research into degenerative diseases is designed to discover patentable, synthetic drugs that suppress symptoms as a long-term treatment but don’t heal the patient, who is often prescribed a “cocktail” of drugs to counteract the “side-effects” of the previous drugs. Israeli physician Arie Brecher explains: “From an animal one can get only a very approximate indication of how a human will react under similar circumstances. But this is not science—it’s a lottery. However, we are not playing games. At stake are health and life....The day it was decided to develop medicaments using animal models, it was a sad day for mankind. People began to get sick and to die due to medications. A new epoch in medicine started: the epoch of iatrogenic diseases, caused by doctors, by medical therapies. In the U.S. at least one and a half million people are hospitalized every year due to the intake of drugs, and many die. For the first time in history, medicine causes disasters instead of curing illness.”
Despite continual reports of “imminent medical breakthroughs” and so-called “miracle drugs”, our health situation is not improving. Total spending on health care in Canada was almost $200 billion in 2010, growing an estimated five percent in one year and threatening to choke the provincial budgets. The awarding of millions of dollars in Canadian government grants every year to research involving animal experiments is a constant drain on the taxpayer as it displaces money that should be going to patient care and clinical research methods. To make matters worse, the animal researchers alone decide which grant proposals will receive funding: through the system of peer review, vivisectors submit grant proposals and sit on the same committees that approve such grants. In any other area this conflict of interest and corresponding lack of cost-benefit analysis would simply not occur. In the self-monitored world of animal research, it is business as usual.
In addition to taxpayer-sponsored government grants, animal research is also funded by private charities. This money is donated by well-meaning people in good faith that it will be spent on valid research. These people hope that their donations will help find a cure for the disease in question. They may be unaware that their donations help to finance often bizarre, frequently repetitive, always cruel, and sadly ineffective animal research.
As medical consumers and taxpayers, we have an absolute right to question the mismanagement of our health and why our healthcare needs are not being advanced. With our money the biomedical research industry has created a system which is completely self-monitored and self-regulated. It is imperative that we demand from government that animal experimentation be replaced immediately by the valid research that will enable us to create a healthy—and yes, humane—society.
In a famous quote from George Bernard Shaw, we hear that notable opponent of vivisection say: “Atrocities are not less atrocities when they occur in laboratories and are called medical research. We give them [animal researchers] huge sums to discover why we are dying of cancer at such an alarming rate, and how we can avoid it. They seize the money and buy innumerable mice to play with in their laboratories. After years of developing in themselves the mouse mind, they tell us that they have found out how to give a mouse cancer, and that they have found a microbe which is quite harmless, but which, when associated with other conditions which they cannot define, seems to be characteristic of cancer. Who would pull the whiskers of a single mouse for the sake of so pitiful a result?”
Putting it more directly, Jane Goodall repudiates animal research as “a betrayal of the scientific method”.
John Pranger and Anne Birthistle are directors of the Animal Defense & Anti-Vivisection Society of B.C.