Animal-based research can be broken down into different categories. One method of categorizing the use of animals in science was discussed in my recent blog 9 Ways Animals Are Used in Science. In this essay I will focus not on using animals as predictive models, as I have covered that in detail both in these blogs and in Animal Models in Light of Evolution but rather on the use of animals in research in general and what scientists can study instead of animals. As you will see there are many good research modalities that do not involve animals.
In my opinion, this essay discusses a relatively minor aspect of the animals in research controversy. The main concern revolves around prediction but many readers of my blog have asked me to address this, so I am. I am not saying the following is unimportant! Merely that it is of secondary importance to the prediction issue. Animal use in research does not continue because of the lack of other scientifically viable modalities. It continues in part because of the vast amount of money involved and mainly because society thinks animals can predict human response. On to the essay.
Animal models are actually a very minor part of biomedical research in general, however despite not allowing scientists to predict human response, they receive the lion’s share of the research funding. There are two points that need to be made.
1. Society does not need new research methods per se, it simply needs to fund the ones we already have. For example, performing research on animals is not going to solve the problem of drug resistant infections. Research in physics on the other hand might, because physics offers scientists the chance to design nanomachines that will mechanically destroy the bacteria. Regardless of the bacteria’s genetic makeup, perhaps it can be mechanically crushed or chewed up. Society needs the knowledge that would come from underfunded research areas like physics, chemistry, genetics, epidemiology, clinical research and so forth.
2. Society needs to make a fundamental change from animal-based research to human-based research (and research that leads to advances in technology like the basic physical sciences of chemistry and physics). If it is humans we are trying to help then scientists must study diseases and drug reactions in humans. Most of the great breakthroughs and discoveries have been human-based. These include cardiopulmonary bypass, multiple surgical techniques came from the battlefield or necessity, our current methods of treating AIDS, the distinction between Hepatitis A and B, the treatment of virtually every disease is based on human observation, the closing wounds with sutures, the function of the adrenal glands. (Below are more.) That is not to say that animals were not used at some point, but rather that such use was either not necessary or turned out to be misleading or was responsible for a relatively minor portion of the advance.
Research in the physical sciences led to discoveries that include X-ray crystallography, synchrotron radiation sources, neutron sources, nuclear magnetic resonance and other spectroscopies for molecular structure determination, MRI, PET scans, microscopes, lasers, molecular tweezers, single molecule spectroscopies, blood analysis equipment, heart catheters and angioplasty, arterial and venous catheters, microscopes, lithotripsy, electrocautery, ultrasound, EEG, and Lasers.
Research in human-based areas and the physical sciences is funded but not to the degree animal-based research is. The research pie is finite. A dollar that goes to animal-based research is taken away from human-based research. The way to accomplish both numbers 1 and 2 is to stop funding research with a poor track record of success. This will free up the money that needs to be spent on the research that has created effective treatments and holds the most potential for future advances.
Let’s examine the above in a little more detail.
Epidemiology studies populations of people to find commonalties that might be significant. Epidemiology linked smoking to cancer and heart disease, cholesterol to vascular disease, diet to cancer and vascular disease, hypertension to stroke, the effects of environmental poisons, the causes of birth defects, vitamin deficiencies to their diseases, folic acid deficiency in pregnant mothers to spina bifida and many more.
In vitro research is what people usually think of when they think of labs and research. It involves glassware and tubes and pipettes and can use human tissue. Almost everything we know about HIV/AIDS has come from studying humans and human tissue.
Autopsies have been a neglected form of research of late for many reasons but remain the best method of studying the effects of a disease on the whole body. Knowledge of virtually every disease has been advanced because of autopsies. Surgeries have been worked out and practiced on cadavers. Diseases have also been discovered because of autopsies. Very few autopsies are conducted today compared to the past.
Personalized medicine is the concept that since each person, even a monozygotic twin, is genetically unique, medicines should be designed for individuals. This field finally abandons the notion of one size/medicine fits all and recognizes that diseases will also affect each person differently. Gene chips or DNA chips are computer wafers that have very small wells in which scientists can place DNA and a new drug. If the new drug makes the gene that causes aplastic anemia turn on, then that drug is not indicated for the person belonging to that DNA. By contrast if a cancer patient’s DNA is examined using this method and it is found that the gene that kills the cancer is turned on, then that might be a good drug for that cancer patient. This is the way medicine will be practiced in the future and to a degree is already being practiced.
Genetics. Personalized medicine will be made possible by a more thorough study of genes and genetics. The Human Genome project was a very good start and the spin-off projects that continue will lead to more applications of Personalized Medicine. Such projects need funding. Pharmacogenomics and toxicogenomics and the Human Proteome Project are such spin-offs.
Prevention has long been ignored in this society, as it offers no monetary reward for the practitioners. It is estimated that 80% of all cancers could be prevented and approximately the same percentage of heart disease and other killers.
Post-Marketing Drug Surveillance is required but not enforced. If it were, side effects of new drugs and new indications for old drugs would be better reported and patients would benefit. This requires political willpower and money.
For the study of diseases of the brain, new imaging technologies such as Magnetoencephalography (MEG), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), Positron emission topography (PET), Single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), Event-related optical signals (EROS), Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and others are offering a view of the human brain that cannot be had by dissecting animals. (I thank concerned-citizen for drawing attention to these and our book What Will We Do If We Don’t Experiment On Animals?)Again, autopsies are vital for advancing knowledge of diseases of the brain.
Research in the basic sciences of math, physics and chemistry including mathematical and computer modeling, artifical neural networks and nanotechnology has been the basis for many breakthrough treatments and should be better funded. Chemistry has given us combinatorial and solid phase syntheses, DNA sequencing, biocompatible materials, drug delivery devices, polymerase chain reaction, separation and purification methods, and many other breakthroughs Mathematics and computer science has given us fast fourier transforms used in spectroscopy and CT scans, fast sequence alignment and database methods used in genomics, conformational search and optimization methods used in protein folding, and ecological and population models of disease.
Finally, clinical research should be the mainstay of any research program seeking to relieve human suffering.
So, why should you care?
There are multiple reasons why every person should care about and be involved in this issue. First, fiscal conservatives should be concerned that resources are being wasted. Money for medical research is finite and most of it goes to animal models. These models are not predictive and in fact are misleading. No other industry would expect an endless infusion of resources with no or minimal return on investment.
Second we have a limited number of scientists capable of performing medical research and these scientist’s education and training are being wasted. Herman Hesse in his book The Glass Bead Game discussed a society where all the best and brightest played a game called the glass bead game. Although nothing of note came from playing the game, the players and the game were held in high esteem by society. These minds were wasted.
Third, society is being intellectually bullied. Academics make claims from their ivory towers that they are not willing to have discussed in the public forum. They seem to have forgotten that their salaries are paid by the public. I can think of no other enterprise in which shareholders are denied access to information as to what the billions of dollars they have invested have purchased. We have waited too patiently for results from the NIH grants. It is time for transparency; the researchers need to justify their continued funding in an open forum such as a debate on a university campus complete with their own university’s security force.
Fourth, people are actively being harmed because results from animal models are being extrapolated to humans. The action of a drug in mice is irrelevant to its efficacy and toxicity in humans. As I stated elsewhere, the National Cancer Institute has gone on record saying that in their opinion cures for cancer have been lost because results from rodents were believed.
Last but not least people are suffering and dying because research options that are human-based are not funded. Thus, animal-based research harms people both directly and indirectly.
In summary, you should be infuriated!
In my next blog I will examine how ethical research on humans and human tissue is being effectively accomplished.
(For a more detailed look at what research methods should be used in biomedical research, I refer the reader to our book: What Will We Do If We Don’t Experiment On Animals?)