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The Physicians Committee

Moving Beyond Animal Tests Toward Better Research

By Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

This piece was published in the The Washington Times on July 14, 2002 under the headline “Animalistic Methods of Testing.”

The use of animals in laboratories always raises questions about animal suffering. Every year, roughly 20 million animals endure a miserable experience before being killed in experiments in the United States. But it’s not just the animals who pay a price for misguided research. As recent events have shown, we do, too.

At issue are experiments by Ohio State veterinarian Michael Podell, who dosed dozens of cats with methamphetamine (“speed”) and infected them with viruses, attempting to simulate the brain-damaging effects of drugs combined with HIV. He forced the cats to walk narrow planks, and conducted various other tests before killing and dissecting them. The National Institutes of Health awarded him a $1.7 million slice of its ever-expanding pie.

Dr. Podell was, of course, resoundingly criticized by animal welfarists as well as scientists who felt that findings on cats and cat viruses did not apply to human disease. But what many, including Dr. Podell, may not have realized was that, at precisely the same time that NIH was funding his crude cat experiments, it was also sponsoring a much more elegant study of the subtle effects of “speed” and HIV in HIV-positive, drug-abusing humans. Properly done, studies of humans are far more informative than studies on cats or other animals. True, scientists cannot kill and dissect humans at will as they might their animal subjects. But the advantages of ethical human studies far outweigh their limitations. Neuropsychological testing, CT scans, PET scans, and other state-of- the-art diagnostic devices allow us to identify subtle brain changes, not to mention memory gaps, language deficits, mood disorders, hallucinations, and delusions that would never be apparent in cats. And while Dr. Podell was fumbling with a cat virus, hoping to be able to somehow relate his findings to humans, cellular studies have allowed us to look at HIV itself.

Under the weight of public scrutiny, Dr. Podell packed his bags and left. But the case illustrates what is wrong with much of medical research. While the federal government has gladly upturned its piggy bank beyond NIH’s wildest dreams, it has been short on strategy. One wonders what would have happened if NASA had pursued the space race with a similar lack of planning.

Disbursing grants to hundreds of would-be space explorers with only the vaguest ideas of the celestial terrain would be a path to certain defeat. Yet we are doing much the same thing in medical research, ponying up money for experiments on animals that are far from the scientific mark, rather than strategically targeting human illnesses with the best means at our disposal.

Animal experiments also interfere with new drug development. Archaic rodent tests are still required by law as new pharmaceuticals trudge from the laboratory to the marketplace. These tests are too crude to spot dangers that arise in human patients, and the results have been disastrous. As a medical intern, I routinely prescribed Zomax, a common painkiller. But it turned out, to our horror, that Zomax could kill patients, too, and it was pulled from the market. A new antidepressant, nomifensine, was supposed to be safer than existing drugs. But it, too, had fatal side effects. In neither case did animal tests tell us anything of the dangers our patients faced. The same was true for the weight- loss drugs fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine, used in the fen-phen combination. They caused a dangerous heart-valve thickening. All these drugs looked safe in animal tests, but proved dangerous in human use.

They are not exceptions. The U.S. General Accounting Office found that, of all new drugs marketed during a 10-year period, 52 percent had seriously toxic or even fatal effects that were not predicted by animal tests. And more minor side effects—dizziness, rashes, nausea, diarrhea, etc.—slip through routinely.

The problem, of course, is basic biology. Just as animals differ from humans in their external appearance, they also differ internally. Within the liver, for example, complex enzymes dismantle and eliminate the various chemicals an animal may ingest. These enzymes differ, sometimes markedly, from one species to another. So a rat might eliminate a drug quickly and show no adverse reactions, while a human tends to retain it and have all manner of toxicities.

Many researchers have argued for better methods. For example, a battery of cellular tests, assembled by the Multicenter Evaluation of In-Vitro Cytotoxicity (MEIC) program, proved far more predictive of human safety than the old-fashioned rat and mouse tests. To these new methods can be added the computerized systems for designing new drugs and anticipating their side effects. In comparison to these modern methods, animal poisoning tests seem like a frat-house prank.

What can the average American do to encourage a shift toward better—and more compassionate—research methods? One place to start is with the health charities we support. Some, like the March of Dimes, continue to fund animal experiments. The March of Dimes, in fact, recently came under fire for gruesome experiments in which monkeys were given uterine infections in order to see if they caused miscarriage. Other charities, like Easter Seals, have strict policies against animal experiments, focusing instead on human-oriented research and health services.

To know which charities are which, prospective donors can simply ask their favorite charities if they have earned the Humane Charity Seal of Approval, or they can check the Web site The Humane Seal identifies those charities that provide essential health services or conduct research without using animals. It was established by the Council on Humane Giving and is administered by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Eliminating animal tests will, of course, be a great kindness to animals. It will also make research much more effective. When we tackle the challenge of human illness, using the very best methods available, we have a far better chance of saving human lives.

Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is a nutrition researcher, author, and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).


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