You know, I was thinking of possible titles for this post: “Animal Research: why all the firebombing?”, “Animal Research: I can haz mice?”, but really, there’s no cute/clever way to say this stuff, and this is a pretty serious topic, especially recently. I’m late to the discussion, of course, a multitude of people have already weighed in, including Greg Laden, Discovering Biology in a Digital World, Coturnix, Orac, Dr. Free-Ride, and more. This is just my humble opinion, and as such, I would like hatred, horrid mis-spellings, and threats to be directed elsewhere, please. If you would like to have a reasoned, well thought out discussion, be my guest. Also, for an interesting book on animal research, and the official US regulations on animal research, see the excellent posts up at Discovering Biology in a Digital world and drugmonkey.
As I’m sure most of you have heard by now, two UC Santa Cruz researchers have recently had their lives, and the lives of their families, threatened by animal rights groups. (No matter what, I have to say UC Santa Cruz has an amazing mascot) About a year ago, another researcher, out of UCLA, had her home flooded and set on fire. Nothing was done to protect the faculty until it was too late, even though they had been receiving threats, and the incidents have sent chills down the spines of my colleagues. We all start to wonder who’s next. The earliest incidence occurred to a primate researcher. It worried many of us, but primates are high profile in the animal rights community, and we consoled ourselves that people would leave our rats and mice alone.
But the two most recent incidents targeted a mouse researcher, and someone who does research in drosophila. Those would be fruit flies. You know, the little things that get on your nectarines when you leave them out too long. And my colleagues are worried. It doesn’t help that many people (including fellow scientists) say things like “well, if you’re worried, don’t do animal research”.
So I figured I’d take a minute and explain WHY it is that we do what we do, and what it takes for us to do it. Why animal research is important, and what we do to ensure that we use as few animals as we can, and in the best possible way.
So, why animal research? Why not just use cells? Or computer programs? The reason is that we cannot study all the things that we need to study just using cells. A human, monkey, mouse, or even a fly, is a far more complex entity than a single cell or cell group, even more complex than a single organ isolated in a dish. This means that drugs that may work in a colony of cells may work very differently in a whole animal. We have to test new drugs in animals to determine how much to give, how fast they act, how long it takes for them to get out of the system, and to look for side effects that you probably wouldn’t see if you were just looking in cells. We also need to look for long term effects, and what happens when the new drug is combined with other drugs that people may also be taking. The drug may be designed for a specific system, say the digestive system, but it may also have effects on smooth muscles cells elsewhere in the body. It may also have effects on the brain or the skin, and just looking at isolated cells would never tell us that. Also, you can’t test a new kind of surgery on a cell, or on a single organ, you have to be able to see how the whole body responds with things like blood flow and inflammation.
Also, give a thought as to where cells, or organs in a dish, come from. We can grow them up now, but that takes stem cells, and that’s an even thornier issue.
In the same way that cells have problems, computer simulations do, too. Working with a computer simulation is like working in a vacuum. There is no way (yet) that you can simulate an enviroment, other animals, and all the things that a real animal might encounter. Not only that, we certainly don’t know everything about the human body yet (especially not the brain). There is thus no way we could make a computer simulation that could emcompass everything we need in the brain for a good result. And how do you find out enough about the brain to make a simulation?
So why not test things in humans? We do test things in humans before the go on the market. If you have ever been in a clinical trial (I’ve been in several), you will know what I mean. The drugs are tried out on volunteers, to look for side effects and other problems that may not have been found in the animal studies. Why not test on just humans?
When we develop a new drug, we don’t necessarily know how potent it is, we don’t know how much to give. We don’t know whether it is safe or even effective. Humans are even more complex than animals. We eat a varied diet, are exposed to a lot of different things (some legal, some illegal, some region-specific), and may be on several kinds of drugs at the same time. If we were just testing on humans, how would we know what were the effects of the drug, rather than say, the effects of the other pills you might have taken, or the steak you ate?
Furthermore, some things humans are not willing to test, and we are not willing to test them on humans. These may be things found in our environment, and we need to see what levels have harmful effects, and what symptoms we need to look out for. But what pregnant woman wants to have thalidomide or mercury tested on her and her baby? These are things in our environment, and we need to know how they act, but we cannot test them on humans.
The FDA requires that all chemicals or drugs that come into contact with humans be tested for safety. Thus, even if you use a product that is not tested on animals, the chemical components of them have been tested, though at some time in the past. So when you see something that hasn’t been tested on animals, it’s because enough testing has been done to know all the effects of that product, and so there is no further need for testing.
Animal research is a necessary part of medical progress. But that doesn’t give us the right to go cutting into any animal we like. There are strict rules in place to ensure that the animals we use are treated in the best possible way. The researchers I work with are incredibly compassionate people, but there is also a practical reason. A suffering animal is not going to give you good data, and an animal that is not healthy can show a different reaction to a drug. It is in the best interest of science that the animals we use be well treated. The rules look something like this:
Before you start any experiment, the researcher in charge has to gain approval from a committee that oversees animal care and use. They have to describe exactly what experiments are going to be carried out and how. They must say where the animals are housed, whether they are housed with families or groups of animals so that they have socialization (and if not, why not, and you’d better have a good explanation), and whether they have toys to play with and things to do (like running wheels for mice and rats). The animals always have to have a specific amount of space, they can’t be crowded in together. The animals should always have plenty of clean food and water, and if they don’t, there needs to be a VERY good reason (like, say, if you’re testing the effects of a limited diet or a specific type of protein or carbohydrate in food). They have to say how many animals they are going to use, and how they have designed their experiments to minimize the number of animals. If there is surgery or drug administration involved, they have to say what kind of anesthetic they use for surgery, and what kind of painkillers they use to make sure the animal is comfortable after the surgery is done. They have to state exactly what doses of drugs will be used, and how they will be administered.
For every experiment, they have to disclose what kind of stress the animal will be under, and how that stress will be alleviated, what kind of pain they may be in, and how that pain will be dealt with. Some experiments have to end with the sacrifice of the animal, though this avoided if at all possible, so the researcher has to explain how they will make the sacrifice. The animal should be anesthetized, so that it feels no pain, and the sacrifice is done quickly and cleanly, so there is as little suffering as possible.
Scientists are not monsters. I have never met an animal researcher who didn’t care deeply for the animals they used. It really upsets us when we have to sacrifice, and really, I would not want to meet a researcher who WASN’T upset about killing an animal. We go to great lengths to make sure they are not uncomfortable. I personally oversee every animal I work with from the day they are born to the day they die. I wean them, play with them, change their cages, feed them, and keep them healthy. It’s not just emotional (though I do care for my little guys), it’s practical. We want our animals to be as happy and healthy as possible.
If you feel animal research is entirely wrong, that’s fine. You can protest by not using any products that have been used or tested on animals. No vaccines. No antibiotics. No chemotherapy. No prosthetics. No getting a cast if you break a leg, no getting an x-ray or an MRI to see what is wrong. No painkillers, no pacemakers, no surgery for your heart failure. No insulin for your diabetes, no surgery for your tumor, no ceasarian section for a safe delivery (And I should note that, prior to the introduction of the C-section and antiseptic medical practices, 1/3 of women died in childbirth). No organ donation or transplants for leukemia. If your pet gets sick, no veterinarians, no surgery. Animals have benefited from animal research, too.
In the realm of things you might use every day: no neosporin, no aspirin, no birth control, no bugspray and no sunblock. No household cleaners, cosmetics, shampoo, or toothpaste (these products may not be tested on animals now, but their predecessors were. However, now that we know enough about the chemicals involved, most of these products are no longer tested on animals). No preservatives in your food. No allergy medications, no plastics in your water bottles, no water purifying tablets.
Welcome to the Dark Ages.
If you feel animal research is wrong, entirely unnecessary all of the time, that is your opinion. You can stand up and say it. You had a right to meet publicly and protest it. But don’t hide behind arson and threats. Do not threaten small children because their parents are researchers. Stand up, say your thoughts aloud and in a rational manner, and we will listen to you. We will NOT listen to a bunch of violent maniacs. Give us alternatives, what research will you support so that we don’t have to do animal work? If it is scientifically viable and gives us the information we need, we will do it.
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