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ALTERNATIVES TO ANIMAL EXPERIMENTATION
Keeping the “Life” in Life Sciences
The University of Utrecht in the Netherlands has created a graduate program for the replacement of animal experimentation in its Institute of Life Sciences and Chemistry. Set up in cooperation with the Dutch Anti-Vivisection Group and the National Center for Alternatives, the program will teach students how to create and validate alternative research protocols and how to perfect the use of tissue and synthetic models and computer simulators which are already in use. New techniques that are developed are expected to influence other universities, research institutions, chemical companies, and the pharmaceutical industry. The four-year program takes a nonanimal approach to biology, biochemistry, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, embryology, and other fields of study.
Successful In-Vitro Embryotoxicity Screen
A test that may save countless animals and research dollars by flagging potentially embryotoxic chemicals is now available in the United States. In 2002, scientists in Europe confirmed the accuracy of the Rodent Embryonic Stem Cell Test (EST), an in-vitro test used in place of experiments that involve force-feeding test chemicals to pregnant animals to determine potential harm to their embryos. It classifies substances from non-embryotoxic to highly embryotoxic so scientists can assess whether more specific immunological, cellular, or molecular tests are warranted.
EST will enable companies to spot dangers early, cease drug or chemical development when necessary, and avoid animal tests—mandatory, yet inadequate, predictors of human risk. The test uses immortal cell lines that are kept frozen until needed; therefore, once cell lines are established, no further animals are killed in the procedure. EST is now being conducted at the Institute for In Vitro Sciences, Inc., in Gaithersburg, Md., and is available to other companies.
Genschow E, Spielmann H, Scholz G, et al. The ECVAM international validation study on in vitro embryotoxicity tests: Results of the definitive phase and evaluation of prediction models. ATLA. 2002;30:151-176.
New Software Streamlines Drug Research
Scientists at India’s Central Drug Research Institute have adopted Drug Discovery Assistant software (“DD Assist”) for testing the toxicity of various chemicals. Previously, new drugs were developed using animal tests, which drained resources through decades of hit-or-miss trials. DD Assist will reduce the numbers of animals used by 90 percent and bring safer drugs to market much more rapidly. Although high subscription rates made it difficult for much of the world to acquire the software in the past, Invenio Biosolutions of New Delhi has now created a more affordable version that will allow India’s drug industry to compete with developed nations.
After a two-year campaign, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign undergraduates won the right to use alternatives to animal dissection. Proponents of the change cited more than 60 peer-reviewed studies demonstrating the efficacy of dissection alternatives and pointed to the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment, which, in their view, protects students from being forced to harm animals while receiving a public university education.
Dairy-Based Formula Linked to High Blood Pressure
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that infants fed milk-based baby formula grew up to have higher blood pressure than babies who were breastfed. Researchers at the University of Bristol followed up with 951 babies born between 1972 and 1974 who were either given a milk-based baby formula or were breastfed.
Those babies who consumed the most dried milk had a 6.1 mm Hg greater systolic blood pressure and a 2.3 mm Hg greater diastolic blood pressure than those who consumed the least.
It is unclear whether milk’s high sodium, fat, or calorie content are to blame, or if mothers who breastfeed tend to encourage healthier eating habits in their children. It is certain, however, that breastfeeding provides many long-term health benefits.
Martin RM, McCarthy A, Smith GD, Davies DP, Ben-Shlomo Y. Infant nutrition and blood pressure in early adulthood: the Barry Caerphilly Growth study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;77:1489-1497.
OVERWEIGHT AND OBESITY
The Fat You Can’t See Can Hurt You, Too
Rolls of body fat are naturally a concern of doctors, but new research from Johns Hopkins University shows that visceral fat, which surrounds vital organs and is not visibly obvious from the outside, increases the risk for heart disease and diabetes, too.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins asked 84 healthy adults aged 55 to 75 to keep a food diary for three days and then undergo an abdominal MRI scan to look for visceral fat. They found that diets high in saturated fats—found in lard, butter, and meats—were most likely to encourage visceral fat formation. Those with high waist-to-hip ratio measurements were also likely to have too much fat padding their organs. This type of underlying fat is a high risk factor for heart attack.
American College of Cardiology 52nd Annual Scientific Session
Atkins Diet: No Miracle, According to New Studies
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, although the Atkins regimen caused early weight loss in dieters, they soon regained the pounds they shed.
The yearlong study involved 63 obese men and women who were randomly assigned to either a low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high-fat (Atkins) diet or to a conventional, low-calorie diet. The Atkins diet group lost more weight during the first six months, but, at the end of one year, differences among the groups were not significant. Adherence was poor in both groups. The study provides further evidence that the Atkins regimen, which is severely low in carbs, is simply a low-calorie diet out of sync with healthy eating patterns and does not sustain long-term weight regulation.
Foster GD, Wyatt HR, Hill JO, et al. A randomized trial of a low-carbohydrate diet for obesity. N Engl J Med. 2003;348:2082-2090.
Obesity Cuts Life Short
It’s no secret that obesity fuels a great many illnesses, but now researchers have estimated how many years of life may be lost when weight problems are left untreated. Data from previous studies on individuals aged 18 to 85 were analyzed, and body mass index (a measure of body weight adjusted for height) was calculated. Young black men with a BMI above 45 faired worst, reducing their lifespan by 20 years. Young black women with similar obesity levels reduce their lifespan by 5 years. Young white men and young white women with a BMI greater than 45 lost 13 and 8 years of life, respectively. Optimal BMI is 23 to 25 for white people and 23 to 30 for black people.
Fontaine KR, Redden DT, Wang C, Westfall AO, Allison DB. Years of life lost due to obesity. JAMA. 2003;289:187-193.
Research at VA Hospitals Endangers Lives
Veterans’ hospitals across the United States are under criminal investigation for violations of federal safety rules, including some that may have contributed to the deaths of patients.
The Department of Veterans Affairs identified cases in which researchers falsified data and failed to explain the risks of experimental procedures to patients. An overdose of prescription drugs is believed to have caused the death of one participant in Detroit. A blood pressure study in Fargo, North Dakota, was linked to the death of one patient, with more than 20 other patients suffering severe adverse reactions to the drugs. Injuries in Albany, Pittsburgh, Providence, Portland, and California are also under investigation.
HORMONE REPLACEMENT THERAPY
Hormone Therapy Linked to Dementia
The major U.S. government study on long-term estrogen-progestin use, which was partially terminated last year because of increased risks of breast cancer, heart attack, and stroke, has also found an increased risk for dementia. When taken for more than four years, the hormone appears to have a detrimental effect, impairing cognitive function in women age 65 or older. It did not prevent mild cognitive impairment as once thought.
This offshoot examination, the Women’s Healthy Initiative Memory Study, was conducted by Wake Forest University and involved 4,532 women, half of whom used Prempro estrogen-progestin pills and half of whom received a placebo. Since the original study began uncovering serious healthy risks, sales of Premarin and Prempro have dropped significantly.
Rapp SR, Espeland MA, Shumaker SA, et al. Effect of estrogen plus progestin on global cognitive function in postmenopausal women: the women’s health initiative memory study: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2003;289:2663-2672.