Animal Rights

Surfactant as an Example of Past Uses of Animals

| by Dr Ray Greek

As I have explained many times, I do not dispute the fact that many past discoveries were made using animals or animal tissues. The vivisection activists set up a straw man when they accuse me of refusing to acknowledge this fact. I do not think further statements acknowledging that past discoveries (e.g. surfactant) were made using animals will silence the vivisection activists as, from their perspective, this is not about truth but rather about money.    

However, I have challenged the vivisection activists to prove their claim that the only way these discoveries could have been made was by using animals. They have not. (They seem to get a little testy when it is even mentioned.) Acknowledging the facts of history is very different from claiming that history could not have unfolded any other way. The burden of proof is on the person making such a claim not on the person asking the question. Once again, I doubt their response to the below will be any different.


The story of surfactant actually begins with La Place’s Law. (Yes, there really are laws of physics.) La Place described the mathematical relationships between the radius, pressure, and surface of a bending surface; a bubble. The mathematics would become important for understanding why premature babies have difficulty breathing.

Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS) has been known for centuries. One of the earliest manuscripts was by the obstetrician Eduard Jorg (Jorg 1835). The early advances in treating RDS revolved around artificial ventilation but were rejected by physicians until the 1960s. Research with dogs and pigs provided evidence that surface tension was important in maintaining the airway. In the 1940s Thannhauser discovered that the lung contained high amounts of dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine or DPPC. He used animal tissues. In 1961, Klaus et al., isolated surfactant from the alveoli of cow lungs. (A very good review article on surfactant is (Parmigiani and Solari 2003).) The eventual use of surfactant as a treatment for RDS came about because of many discoveries involving both animals and humans. The discovery of the chemical known as surfactant was due in large part to research using animals and animal tissues. I have never disputed that fact or any other fact of history. What life form was used for the discovery is of minimal importance, which was the point I was making in the plant bilirubin blog. Surfactant could have been discovered using human lung tissue and maybe somewhere along the way human lung tissue was used in that fashion. Regardless, it was tissues from animals that were primarily used in making the initial discovery.

What is debatable however, is whether such discoveries and the breakthroughs that followed could have been accomplished without using animals at all. If one is going to claim that animal models were the only way such breakthroughs could have occurred (which the vivisection industry clearly does), then the burden is clearly on them. If Dr Ringach is not making that claim, then he need only say so. Asking me loaded yes no questions as he did in his follow-up to my plant bilirubin blog does not facilitate mutual understanding. (It does confuse the scientifically uneducated reader or the reader unfamiliar with critical thinking, which is probably the point.) 

Moreover, any discussion of the benefits of using animals in past discoveries (since that is what Dr Ringach wants to dwell on) must include the harm to humans from that paradigm. Such harms include: the fact that humans respond to tobacco and asbestos by suffering from cancer while most animals do not thus delaying the warnings about smoking; the fact that smoking leads to heart disease in humans but not most animals, again delaying the warnings about smoking; the fact that high cholesterol leads to heart disease in humans but not most animals, delaying the warnings about cholesterol; the fact that because rabbits secreted penicillin very rapidly in their urine, Fleming was led to believe that it would be ineffective for systemic infections in humans (it was not developed further for a decade); the fact that monkey models of polio mislead researchers for decades when human evidence pointed them in the right direction, thus delaying the polio vaccine; and the fact that hormone replacement therapy was administered to women based on animal studies. Those are some impressive harms and the list is far from complete.

Anytime a practice, method, or modality, be it drug sniffing dogs or using animals in research is to be fairly judged, the hits and misses must be accounted for. Both sides in this debate can cite hits or misses that support their position. These are anecdotes and are irrelevant. Exchanging anecdotes accomplishes nothing. (Of course if the status quo favored the position that I was taking, I might not want to accomplish anything else either. I might just ask loaded question and pretend not to understand basic scientific principles.) This is why positive predictive value (PPV) and so forth are so important. In PPV, hits and misses are counted.

If one wants to argue the importance of animal models per se in the past then that debate will hinge in whether the harms outweighed the benefits or vice versa. I honestly do not know how such a debate would turn out.

Likewise, I honestly do not know whether many of the past discoveries could have happened without using animals. I have stated many times that I do not really care, as the answer is not relevant to my position that 1) animals are, as a point of fact, not predictive for human response to drugs and disease (which is also AFMA’s position) and 2) that using sentient animals in basic research is, as a point of fact, not condoned by society. Arguing “what if . . .” scenarios are sometimes interesting and are certainly part of learning how to think critically, but the role of animals in past discoveries does not change the previous two facts.

Further, falsely accusing me denying the facts that I have acknowledged many times serves only to strengthen my positions and character in the eyes of the objective reader.

One final note about surfactant. Currently the best source for surfactant in order to treat premature babies is cows. Human-derived surfactant and synthetic surfactants do not seem to work as well as the bovine-derived versions. This is odd but it is what the literature says. If AFMA were an antivivisection organization and wanted to see animals eliminated from medicine and science in general, I would seize on this and try to find a replacement for bovine surfactant. If I were going to argue in favor of using animals in science, I would argue based on uses like surfactant, not on the basis of 1) using animals in order to predict human response or 2) the value of using sentient animals in basic research. Those two positions will not stand up to scrutiny. But that is just me being honest.


Jorg, E. . 1835. Die Foetuslunge im gebornen Kinde. Gebhardt: Grimma.

Parmigiani, S., and E. Solari. 2003. The era of pulmonary surfactant from Laplace to nowadays. Acta Biomed 74 (2):69-75.