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Beyond Animal Research
By Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D.
Anyone who has broken a bone knows it is very painful. After the pain of the initial trauma, the period of healing can drag on for months.
Understanding how bones break and heal and developing treatments are all important and worthwhile medical endeavors. Unfortunately, some experimenters deliberately break healthy animals’ bones. Each year dozens of such studies are published; these experiments are conducted on many different animals, including dogs, rats, mice, rabbits, pigs, sheep, and goats.
Dogs are used especially often in bone break studies. One recent study wounded the leg bones of 66 beagle dogs using a circular saw and also subjected 44 rats to repeated injections into the leg bone marrow cavity (Paralkar et al. 2003). The resulting paper provides no information on anesthesia, post-surgical pain management, or the fate of the unfortunate animals beyond the 24-week study. Another experiment used a penetrating captive bolt gun to fracture the legs of nine dogs, then infected the injuries with bacteria (Khodaparast et al. 2003), while another examined bone cell formation in dogs whose jaws had been artificially broken (Wei et al. 2003). In yet another study, the leg bones of 11 large dogs were broken, then surgically stabilized with metal plates to test the efficacy of a laser probe for measuring blood flow at the wound site (Jain et al. 2000).
In all of these studies, the supposed aim was to improve human bone fracture and repair. But there are many ways to study this without harming animals. These include:
- clinical studies with human fracture patients (Suzuki et al. 2004, Martinez et al. 2003)
- epidemiological studies (Tornetta et al. 2004)
- working with preserved human bones (Gollwitzer et al. 2004)
- clinical case reviews and reports (Jones & Duncan 2003, Nocini et al. 2004)
- imaging techniques (e.g., MRI, Takahashi et al. 2004)
- meta-analyses of published clinical studies (Hanson et al. 2004)
- animal cadaver studies (e.g., Halling et al. 2003)
- artificial bone studies (e.g., Sawbones) (Ali et al. 2003)
Human-based methods have several advantages: They involve natural fractures (not artificial ones like those produced with a circular saw), they don’t require extrapolation between species, and patients can verbally report their symptoms. And they inflict no injury on healthy patients.
With all the options available, one marvels that Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees can approve animal experiments when the Animal Welfare Act requires such approval come only if an IACUC determines “that alternatives were not available."
Jonathan Balcolmbe, Ph.D., is a PCRM research consultant with background in ethology. He is the author of The Use of Animals in Higher Education, as well as many articles on humane life science education and scientific papers on animal behavior.
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