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Medical Experiments on Animals Mislead and hold back Progress by Harry Mather, Vegan Views 96 (Spring 2003)

The vegan case for not eating meat and not using products derived from animals may be clear and irrefutable, but when we come to the subject of the use of animals in medical research, there is an even greater reluctance to change established ways of looking at how to deal with disease. Some animal experiments may not involve cruelty beyond taking them out of their natural habitat and keeping them in unnatural conditions (such as cages and isolating them from their peers). A great number of experiments though are painful and involve cruelty, like making incisions or injecting with toxic substances. to observe what effect they will have. Such experiments are defended by experimenters on the grounds that they are necessary for the onward march of medical progress and it is more difficult to counter arguments on the medical side than it is on the dietary side. If one is told that experiments on animals have brought great benefits to human health, we can be made to appear anti-progress and cruel to humans if we want to stop experiments on animals. But is that really the case? Are we making progress in improving the health of humans?

The fact is that we spend huge sums on National Health budgets plus large amounts spent by individuals on self-medication and these sums (plus monies collected by Charities for research) are considered to be insufficient. Yet today we are facing devastating diseases for which no cures can be found such as AIDS and Ebola. This should make us pause and consider whether we are on track to find effective cures for disease and to promote better health. Maybe alternative or complementary medicines should be given a more serious chance to prove their efficacy. They have developed through experience with humans and not by animal experimentation.

Animal experimentation for medical purposes seems to have been founded on a simple logic: You take an animal, inject it with the bacteria relative to the disease you are studying, then try out various substances that you think might counter the bacteria until you find the right one and, there you are, you have found the cure for that particular disease. In this way, it was expected to eliminate at least most diseases and create a healthy world. We have in fact been able to deal with the simpler diseases, but this is largely the result of better hygiene and improved living conditions. Cholera is one example of a serious disease that was eradicated by installing sewerage systems.

The logic on which animal experimentation was based had one fatal flaw that was not foreseen a hundred years ago: The organs of animals react differently to those of humans, so much so that what is effective with one animal may cause great harm to humans and even to other animal species. Even rats and mice, which one would think of as much of a kind, can react very differently.

In the Middle Ages, the Church had forbidden autopsies on human corpses and medical opinion was limited to studying animal bodies. During the 17th and 18th centuries, people began to dissect human corpses and made great progress in the study of human physiology. William Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood by examining human bodies (though he later made those experiments on animals because he feared he might be condemned for using human corpses). A modern Biographical Encyclopaedia by Asimov points out that "Virtually the whole of medical knowledge was created by the study of autopsies".

It was Claude Bernard who in 1865 developed an enthusiasm for animal experimentation, believing that answers would be found in the laboratories rather than clinical observation. Louis Pasteur, who expounded the germ theory of disease, did this without the need for animal experiments. Robert Koch turned his attention to finding a cure for cholera and although he conducted tests on many species of animals, he confessed that he could not arrive at anything in animals similar to the cholera process and eventually confessed "An experiment on an animal gives no certain indication of the result of the same experiment on a human being".

The microscope gave the ability to observe human cells and cell components directly. They could now observe how cells react to disease and to therapies. Whole organisms can be understood through the study of their cellular parts. Looking through a microscope makes clear the many differences between human cells and those of other species. There is even a divergence in susceptibility to disease and treatment between various types of humans, either through gender, race and other causes. For instance people with a lighter coloured skin are more prone to skin cancers than those with darker skins. If humans can react differently, how then can we expect to use animals as sound models when their whole physiology is so much more different?

Tests on animals failed completely in the case of the drug Thalidomide. This was designed to alleviate 'morning sickness' in pregnancy but resulted in deformed limbs in the children. In 1957, as incidences of the deformities came to be increasingly reported, the drug was given to scores of animals but no adverse effect could be found, until finally the White New Zealand rabbit replicated the ill-effects found on humans, and even then at a dose 25 to 300 times the dose given to humans. Then, in 1962, the drug was withdrawn, after having been marketed for 5 years and after over 10,000 children had been born crippled. This disaster should have demonstrated the futility of relying on animal models for testing drugs, but the lesson was ignored. Too much prestige and money was at stake.

Diabetes is a serious and prevalent disease, where the insulin needed to process carbohydrates is either lacking or malfunctioning. In 1788 autopsies on diabetics showed a connection between diabetes and the pancreas, yet in 1875, Hansemann concluded from experiments on dogs that that diabetes had nothing to do with the pancreas. It had already been found that diabetic patients excreted sugar in their urine, so extra sugar was given to them to compensate for this loss. In 1870 Bouchardat turned against this practice and recommended changes in the diet and exercise instead and this is acknowledged today as being a useful palliative. No animal experiments had been involved, only observation of humans. The animal model proved false.

In 1920 Macleod and Banting isolated insulin by extracting it from a dog. The use of a dog was unnecessary because there was plenty of tissue available from human cases. When Charles Best gave dog insulin to a boy, he suffered severe side effects. Other scientists used in vitro techniques to isolate and purify the insulin. Some lab animal work suggested that the new insulin would cause birth defects, but fortunately this did not apply to humans. The use of animal-derived insulin saved lives but created allergic reactions in some patients. With the discovery of the structure of the human insulin in 1955, it has been possible to provide synthetically produced and safe human insulin. Many attempts to study diabetes by the use of mice only proved that "none of these animal models of diabetes are perfectly equivalent to the human disease state" (Pharmacology 1991; 18:272).

Toxicity testing relies on the LD50 test on animals, yet Dr. Ralph Heywood, director of the Research Centre stated "the best guess for the correlation of adverse reactions in man and animal toxicity data is somewhere between 5 and 25%". So what possible use are they?

The testing of drugs on animals continues because drug companies can then, in a court of law, say that they carried out the necessary safety tests, but the Handbook on Laboratory Animal Science states "Uncritical reliance on the results of animal tests can be dangerously misleading and has cost the health and lives of tens of thousands of humans, as in Ciba Geigy's clioquinal scandal, the Opren disaster of Distra Products Ltd, or ICI's Eraldrin calamity".

All new medical drugs have to be tested on humans and this is where the real testing begins. The tests on humans are the real tests, tests on animals previous to this are bogus and if the results of animal tests are the same as the tests on humans it is pure coincidence and not science. Some years ago, drugs were tested on volunteer medical students, mainly poor students as they were paid for this. Some severe reactions and, I believe, one death resulted in this being discontinued. Experts in toxicity testing wrote in Acute Toxicity Testing, 1998 "The only universal model for a human…is other humans".

A good example of this is Penicillin. Alexander Fleming saw that it killed bacteria in a petri dish and tested it on rabbits. The rabbits excrete it in their urine. It did not work on them and he abandoned it as useless. It was by chance and in desperation, because no other possible remedy was available, that he administered Penicillin to a patient he thought would die. The patient recovered. At the same time H.W. Florey administered Penicillin to a sick cat. The cat died. Fleming himself attributed the discovery of Penicillin to serendipity saying "it came out of the blue". Penicillin kills guinea pigs and Syrian hamsters and causes malformations in the offspring of rats. Any tests on these animals might have resulted in our having no antibiotics today. It was later found to be effective in mice but it was the test on a human that proved its effectiveness. Following this analogy, it is quite probable that medication that could benefit humans is rejected because animal tests proved negative and they might have been of positive advantage to humans. This is what should have happened in the case of Penicillin. On the other hand, drugs that were cleared after being tested on animals have proved dangerous or fatal to humans. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association , adverse drug reactions killed 106,000 Americans in 1994 and about 15% of hospital admissions are due to adverse medical reactions and cost over $136 bn annually. It is impossible to look on this as sound science.

Digitalis was used by herbalists to treat heart disease before the days of animal experimentation. Its use by medical men was delayed because it was found to cause high blood pressure in animals. Streptomicin, a popular antibiotic, causes malformation in the offspring of rats.

Accurate knowledge about medication can come from computer modelling, in vitro testing, clinical observation and epidemiological studies. Animal testing is bad science and at best misleading, often dangerous. Dr. James Gallagher, a medical researcher stated in 1964 "Animal studies are done for legal reasons and not scientific reasons". Animal research has become routine and has the advantage of being what the funders of research expect. The aim of researchers is to get as many articles as possible published in the many medical journals. The more articles they get published, the more fame and funding they receive and it's a sad fact that scientists have to get funding for their projects. The funding that goes into animal research is wasteful and more useful projects are deprived of funds and of the brains and energy of scientific minds.

The above article resulted from reading Sacred Cows and Golden Geese by C. Ray Greek, MD and Jean Swingle Greek DVM published by Continuum (New York and London) ISBN 0 8264 1402 8. They have also written 'Specious Science'.

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Cross-reference: Animal Rights
Cross-reference: Medical Matters