Animal Experiments Lead AIDS Research Astray
© 2001, PHOTODISC
One Ohio State University (OSU) animal experimenter has begun a gruesome new study. Michael Podell, an OSU veterinarian, is infecting cats with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and then giving them amphetamines to see what damage occurs to their brains. Podell claims that this research will "model" the effects of speed in drug users infected with HIV. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has given Podell $355,000 for the first year of the proposed five-year, $1.68 million study.
Cats, dogs, monkeys, mice, and rats are subjected to innumerable experiments, yet year after year they produce unreliable results that are not applicable to humans. AIDS research is a prime example of an area in which major medical advances have been achieved through human observation and in vitro methods, especially tissue cultures, and not by experimenting on animals. Outbreak investigations and clinical observations were instrumental in identifying the routes of transmission and populations at high risk. Research using human tissues has illustrated the progression and mechanism of HIV.1
Podell's research is plagued with scientific limitations. The rationale for these troubling experiments is that both HIV and amphetamines cause neurological damage in humans, and, therefore, people subjected to both will be susceptible to even greater neurological dysfunction. But cats are not people. They are distinctly different physiologically, which is apparent in their inability to contract the AIDS virus despite many attempts by animal experimenters. Therefore, Podell and others infect cats with the closest thing they can find—FIV—to mimic the disease as best they can. Unfortunately, the diseases and their complicated cellular manifestations are so fundamentally different from human variations and reactions that extrapolation to our species is invalid.
The immune systems of cats and humans differ in countless ways as well.1 The structure and function of the genome, or genetic material, of HIV and FIV are quite divergent, and the major genetic determinant of disease in people with HIV has not been found in FIV.2,3 Additionally, the two viruses take over cells via different cellular receptors.2,3 And although methamphetamine is known to be toxic to the human brain, its neurological effect in cats is not well-characterized.
Podell's experiments subject the cats to stressful, invasive procedures such as spinal taps at the base of the brain, implantation of a temperature-sensing chip, and blood sample collection. After receiving binge doses of speed, the cats will be observed as they are forced to perform stressful tasks, such as walking six-foot planks of decreasing width.
There are more ethical methods of study. The effect of drug use on the progression of HIV can easily be studied in humans. Podell has chosen to ignore the regrettably large population of drug addicts infected with HIV. Many of these people are already seeking psychiatric care and can easily be monitored for neurological dysfunction. In fact, psychiatric data has already been collected on HIV-infected patients in prior studies.4,5 Furthermore, some people infected with HIV have been given amphetamines medicinally to treat AIDS-related depression and have been monitored for any adverse effects to their neurological system.6-8 Another potential study population could include individuals involved in oral amphetamine-prescribing programs. These programs give HIV-infected individuals amphetamine in pill form so they will not share needles and risk transmitting HIV.9 Studying high-risk human populations not only leads to more accurate results, but also provides opportunities for intervention and prevention.
HIV and drug addiction are two major social health problems in the world today deserving much attention and intervention by ethical, capable researchers. Subjecting domestic cats to a virus that is distinctly different from HIV, in a setting that is nothing like the human experience, will only lead to results that miss the mark.
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