By Mimi Bekhechi
The latest figures showing the highest number of animal experiments for a generation demonstrate that the need for an informed public debate on this subject has never been greater.
Like many people I was stunned to see a steep rise in the number of animals used in experiments in the UK. Statistics just released for 2012 show that the most animals since the early 1980s are dying in laboratories, with numbers of experiments up by more than half (57 per cent) compared to 2001. There were also sharp increases in areas such as experiments on non-human primates as well as industrial-scale breeding of genetically modified (GM) animals, many of whom are deliberately bred to have painful defects.
While both animals and humans share the capacity to feel fear and pain, physiologically we're vastly different. Burn a mouse with a flame and dump bacteria into the wound, and it's agony to the mouse, just as it would be to a human. But we now know, following a recently published study, that burn, sepsis and trauma experiments on mice, which have gone on for decades, don't yield useful information because mice don't have the same physiological response to sepsis as people. Scientists now understand why all 150 drugs developed using these animals failed in human patients. The study's lead author stated, "[Researchers] are so ingrained in trying to cure mice that they forget we are trying to cure humans".
Dozens and dozens of similar studies show the failure of animal studies involving rabbits, cats, dogs, monkeys, rats and other species to help cure or prevent human disease. Yet many experimenters continue to cling to the animal "model" as the gold standard of research, squandering time, resources and both human and animal lives. In addition to the pointless cruelty inflicted on animals in experiments, a report released by the Home Office today reveals systemic neglect of animals in laboratories. Among other abuses, a mouse underwent an ectopic heart transplant and was found dead after being neglected over a weekend; 29 birds died from an overdose of a compound because the experimenter failed to check the calculations properly; and five rats were denied analgesia following spinal surgery.
Perhaps most disturbing, the government keeps what's done to animals in laboratories from the public and other scientists through a controversial "secrecy clause" embedded within the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. The act exempts information related to experiments on animals from the Freedom of Information Act. For now, while it is perfectly legal to, for example, saw the top of the skull off a monkey or blind a kitten, it is a crime to reveal details about these mutilations.
More and more people are questioning this secrecy and the morality and efficacy of using animals in experiments. A recent GfK NOP opinion poll shows that 82% of British people would not knowingly donate to a medical research or health charity that funds animal research. In response to public opinion, leading scientists have developed effective, animal-friendly methods – including in vitro (test tube) toxicity screening, "skin" grown in laboratories and computer models that are already in use by forward-thinking researchers.
In 2011, PETA announced that it was providing CeeTox with funding for the validation of a non-animal skin allergy test that is commonly used to test cosmetics. In the animal version, up to 80 guinea pigs (or up to 60 mice) have chemical substances repeatedly injected into their bodies or smeared onto their skin. These tests take weeks, whereas the non-animal test takes three to four days and costs less than half of what the animal tests do. Such tests are especially timely now that sales of cosmetics that have been tested on animals are banned in the European Union.
Researchers are also replicating human organs on microchips to test the impacts of potential drugs. These three-dimensional cell cultures simulate the activities of entire organs and organ systems. Wound models to replace the use of mice and pigs in burn experiments are being developed. The list goes on.
But animals will never be safe until experimenters admit that all the genetic manipulations and wishful thinking in the world will not turn a mouse into a tiny human being. High-tech, reliable and relevant non-animal testing methods exist, and more are waiting to be developed, limited only by our willingness and ingenuity.
Mimi Bekhechi is associate director at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
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