Hippocrates, a Greek physician in the fifth century BC, is considered the father of western medicine and the greatest physician of antiquity. He taught the need for high ethical values in the practice of medicine, stressing hygiene and the healing power of food, using herbal remedies and surgery when necessary. It never occurred to him to nail an animal to a board and dissect it in order to study the human body and human illnesses.
With historical events, medicine was turned on its head. Far from being a sure-fire, modern panacea, animal experimentation is more a relic of the Dark Ages, an age of church-imposed, fatal medical errors, propagated by the Roman physician Galen (circa AD 130-200), whose voluminous treatises on animal physiology came to be regarded as next to holy writ, which it was impious to question, upon pain of death. Papal decree forbade human autopsy, but not vivisection of animals. Galen’s outlandishly false hypothesis—declaring that animals have the same physiology as humans—slowly dimmed the light of knowledge throughout the Roman Empire. His cutting up of animals did not merely fail to teach him anything about the human body, but became the source of grievous mistakes that were to wreak havoc for 15 centuries wherever western Catholicism prevailed.
The first step out of the medical darkness was taken by a Belgian, Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), who, by surreptitiously dissecting cadavers of the hanged, revealed that many of Galen’s descriptions of the human anatomy were wrong, because Galen had based them on the dissections of animals. Vesalius was accused of “heresy and folly” and had to flee for his life.
The errant practice would have died out ignominiously as knowledge broke free of papal injunction and quickly progressed during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, had it not been resuscitated by the literary pretensions of Claude Bernard (1813–1878). Though no one could conceive this methodology today, with everything that we now know, without being laughed at by the scientific community, Bernard’s writings became a Bible for succeeding generations of experimenters. Fairly typical is this statement from 1865’s Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale: “True science can be compared to a superb salon, resplendent with lights, which one can reach only through a long and horrible kitchen.”
As it infatuated the scientific atmosphere of the early 20th century, the protocol for requiring animal testing all but established itself. Then in 1937 a single episode effectively routinized animal testing for medications in the United States. A new sulfa drug antibiotic dissolved in diethylene glycol, a chemical similar to antifreeze, killed 107 people, most of them children. Scientists administered the medicine to animals and they too died. This coincidence of reaction convinced the scientific community that animals should henceforth be used for testing medications. That diethylene glycol just happened to be fatal to both humans and other creatures could not possibly prove that all chemicals react the same in all species. Nevertheless, that erroneous conclusion prevailed and the same problems persisted; different species never reliably reacted alike to treatment.
This set the stage for many disasters as more and more drugs and chemical compounds flooded into circulation. Thalidomide was not the first nor the last drug to have brought heartbreak where it was meant to bring help. Thalidomide, marketed as an anti-nausea drug, caused severe birth defects in 10,000 babies in the 1950s. It spurred the U.S. Congress to find a consumer guarantee for medication safety. Irrationally, that guarantee was to be more animal testing—ignoring the fact that thalidomide had been tested on thousands of animals for three years yet failed to predict the shocking deformities. Testing began all over again—without success.
James Schardein summarized the thalidomide situation in 1976’s Drugs as Teratogens: “To date, in approximately 10 strains of rats, 15 strains of mice, 11 breeds of rabbits, two breeds of dogs, three strains of hamsters, eight species of primates, and in such other varied species as cats, armadillos, guinea-pigs, swine and ferrets in which Thalidomide has been tested, teratogenic effects [birth defects] have been induced only occasionally.” Totally useless!
By legislating that all drugs must test safe in animals prior to release, governments, influenced by the vested interest groups, have not protected the populace from dangerous drugs but created a legal safe haven for companies interested more in profit than patient well-being. In the event of lawsuits from damage caused by adverse reactions, defendants simply and justifiably claim that they “did due diligence and followed the law”. As long as animal testing is legal it will serve as an alibi to escape responsibility and meaningful prosecution.
Over time, animal research proponents, in aggressive campaigns to ward off criticism, have succeeded, with the connivance of most of the mass media, in conditioning the public to equate animal research with all human medical progress and have labelled critics as amateurish, anti-intellectual, anti-science, and anti-human.
This ignores the fact that it is precisely health care professionals and scientists who are challenging the clinical value of animal research. They are doing so mainly on scientific rather than humanitarian grounds, reasoning that newly developed methodologies are sufficient and readily available, less expensive, quicker, and more valid than animal studies.
In 2010, the Memorial University of Newfoundland ended live animal use in a laboratory course for medical students. The animal lab became the subject of controversy after the university learned of the plans of the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to file a legal complaint with the Canadian Council on Animal Care, arguing that the school’s use of live pigs violated federal guidelines. Every Canadian medical school now uses non-animal education methods. Resisting change, UBC was one of the last universities in the country to use live animals to train doctors.
Subsequently, there is no evidence that Canadian medical schools have been graduating less competent doctors as a result, or that they have had to return to a discarded methodology. In a November 2010 newsletter, PCRM cardiologist John Pippin stated: “Canada has completely ended live animal labs, which should send a clear signal to the handful of U.S. medical schools still clinging to these inhumane and educationally inferior procedures. It’s time for the remaining seven U.S. schools to end animal use and embrace the future of medical education.”
Despite this clear example that animal research may be dispensed with altogether, there are researchers at the University of B.C. who still insist on “sacrificing” some 100,000 animals yearly in other experiments, on the pretext of healing human illness. The justification from scientists has always been, “If only you allow us to do this, we will find cures for every illness known to mankind.” This is emotional blackmail. And yet, according to the Medical Research Modernization Committee, a review of the medical literature reveals two consistent trends. First, animal experimentation has had little, if anything, to do with most medical advances. Second, animal researchers and their academic colleagues determine medical school curricula and edit scientific journals. By these means, they have been able to promote the historically inaccurate view that animal research has been vital to medical progress.
Medical historians who have studied the evidence have found that advances in medicine have developed from human clinical investigation. Animal experiments, significantly, have tended to follow, rather than initiate, the process of medical discovery. While animal experimentation has uncovered some useful information, this is hardly surprising, given the billions of dollars invested in it annually. On the other hand, it is inevitable that many promising therapies were abandoned because inaccurate animal models yielded discouraging results.
Virtually every time Medical Research Modernization Committee scientists and clinicians have been asked to review animal-research projects, they have found significant scientific shortcomings that make the value of the research highly questionable. Just one example is the physiological differences between cats’ heads and human heads precluding the possibility that the highly artificial head injuries inflicted on cats could improve our understanding or treatment of human head trauma.
The basic issue is that animal models show fundamental anatomical, physiological, and pathological differences from the human disease they are supposed to mimic. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine justified animal use in cancer research on the grounds that “cancer kills humans and animals alike”. But the injection of rapidly growing cancer cells into young, healthy animals causes tumors that are biologically different from the major human cancers, which tend to be spontaneous, slow-growing tumors in older people.
MRMC scientists have been particularly critical of animal models of mental illness and addiction. Animals do not appear to suffer from mental diseases such as schizophrenia. (Even if an animal had delusions, how would we know about it? The animal could not tell us.) The critically important sociological, cultural, and psycho-pathological factors that lead to drug and alcohol abuse cannot be reproduced in any laboratory. If given a choice, animals will not consume alcohol regardless of how much they have been forced to consume previously. Unfortunately, humans are quite different in this respect. This very basic discrepancy is just one of the factors that should make one distrustful of animal alcohol studies. They only spread confusion and doubt, paralysing public policy.
The animal-research debate is of major importance to public health. Given the enormous time, effort, and money poured into animal experimentation and the meager benefits this research has produced, it is reasonable to conclude that animal research is neither an efficient nor valuable research method. The billions of dollars currently spent on animal experimentation should be redirected to more productive research methods, preventative health programs, and treatment facilities. The MRMC believes that such a redistribution of funds could save many lives.
In addition to such traditional research methods as clinical trials, epidemiological investigations, biopsy and autopsy, some technologically advanced methods—such as CAT and PET scans, cell and tissue cultures, computer models, and computerized post-market surveillance of drugs—permit safe, direct study of human disease. The success of these methods counters claims that animal experimentation is necessary. However, the politically powerful animal-research establishment continues to receive the largest share of available research funds, and even usurps such technologies as above that were developed to help human patients but that are being routinely commandeered by scientists to use in animal research.
A critical component of the campaign to protect the institution of animal research has been the silencing of animal-research critics. In the hierarchical world of science, scientists who perform animal research or whose institutions are financially dependent on animal-research grants determine who gets the grants, which papers get published, and who advances professionally. Consequently, one jeopardizes one’s career by criticizing the status quo. If it sometimes appears that nearly all scientists support the animal-research status quo, this is because opposing views are suppressed. The most secure academicians are tenured professors, but even they are not safe. They can suffer harassment and financial penalties and even dismissal for their views. Such actions may eventually backfire against animal researchers. However, in the short run, scholarly discussion and debate on the value of animal research has been curtailed.
Several other factors allow for continued use of animal experiments—momentum, egos, an uncritical examination of the results, et cetera. Many research scientists simply remain blind to the obvious. Far removed from patient care, they revel in the current discovery and only vaguely consider future application.
But perhaps the most pertinent reason for continued animal experimentation is profit. It makes money for the scientists, physicians, universities, hospitals, regulation bureaucrats, pharmaceutical companies, medical conglomerates, politicians, animal farmers, vendors, lawyers, news media, and more. Billions, if not trillions, of charity and taxpayer dollars are thrown away on wasteful experiments of no consumer use. With so many wheels in furious motion, using animals as models of human disease will stop only in the full light of truth.
John Pranger is the director of communications for the Animal Defense & Anti-Vivisection Society of British Columbia.