In 2010, I wrote an op-ed for the Chronicle of Higher Education, called “Animal Research: Why We Need Alternatives.” In the editorial for the Chronicle, I criticized a controversial experiment published in Nature Methods showing how McGill University researchers intentionally subjected small mammals to various levels of pain, in order to study their facial expressions.
As a medical doctor, I am deeply concerned about the suffering of humans and other animals – and these experiments are no exception.
In 2010, animal researchers at McGill University applied painful stimuli to restrained mice by injecting noxious chemicals into their ankles, hands, and feet. The researchers injected acetic acid into their abdomens, causing them to writhe in severe pain on the test chamber floor. They also put mice on hot plates, clamped metal binder clips on the tips of their tails, and inflicted nerve injury. The only time pain relief was provided was to determine the analgesic’s experimental effects on the animals’ facial expressions. These mice were kept alive for about 2 weeks after the experiments without pain relief.
Recently, another group of researchers published an experiment showing how rats understand the pain in other rats’ faces. These findings aren’t new. We already know that mice and rats – like other animals – are emotional beings who express empathy for others. Over 150 years ago, Charles Darwin wrote about similarities between human and animal emotions. Yet, as I told The Blaze’s investigative series “For the Record,” mice, rats, and birds – who comprise 95% of all animals in laboratories – aren’t even considered “animals” by the government, and they are afforded no protection under the Animal Welfare Act.
The latest published experiment reminds me of 3 good reasons we still need alternatives to animal research:
1.) ETHICS – Every single day, we learn more about the emotional and cognitive lives of animals – including how they are capable of incredible suffering. Even researchers commenting on the experiments on rats noted: “The more we do experiments like this, the more we wonder if we should do experiments like this.” Well, I agree!
… And, so apparently, does the public …
2.) PUBLIC OPINION – Attitudes toward animals are changing, and the time is ripe for action. As per a recent nonpartisan, Pew Research Poll, a solid 50% of people surveyed now oppose the use of animals in laboratory experimentation – an all time high in the public opinion research literature.
There are also clear signs that public opinion transcends partisanship, uniting Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. As per Congressman Tom Marino (R- PA), a three-time cancer survivor, “the end does not justify the means.”
…And public opinion is changing with even more good reason because …
3.) MEDICAL AND SCIENTIFIC IMPERATIVE – In the last 5 years, one story after another has revealed the failure in translating animal experiments to human health benefits.
All of the following stories have been published since I wrote the 2010 op-ed for the Chronicle of Higher Education:
December 2011: The Institute Of Medicine Declares Taxpayer-Funded Chimpanzee Experiments “Unnecessary.”
February 2013: Massachusetts General Hospital’s Dr. H. Shaw Warren Publishes Landmark Report Exposing Mice Experiments As “Totally Misleading.” As written in the New York Times’ enlightening report: “For decades, mice have been the species of choice in the study of human diseases. But now, researchers report evidence that the mouse model has been totally misleading for at least three major killers — sepsis, burns and trauma. As a result, years and billions of dollars have been wasted following false leads, they say.”
June 2013: Ex-NIH Director Elias Zerhouni Declares We “Drank the Kool-Aid” On Animal Experimentation. “‘We have moved away from studying human disease in humans,’ he lamented. ‘We all drank the Kool-Aid on that one, me included.’ With the ability to knock in or knock out any gene in a mouse—which ‘can’t sue us,’ Zerhouni quipped—researchers have over-relied on animal data. ‘The problem is that it hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem…We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.’”
July 2013: Stanford University Epidemiologist Dr. John Ioannidis Publishes Report Revealing Bias In Animal Research. “Too much good news in medicine may be bad news for science, according to a new study that suggests animal research is riddled with bias that allows too many treatments to advance to human trials. Researchers examined data from thousands of experiments on animals for such neurological diseases as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and stroke. They found that the published findings were too good to be true from a statistical perspective.”
I wasn’t surprised by any of these stories. As a doctor and public health specialist, I don’t use data from animal experiments to guide my clinical decisions with human patients.
But 5 years later, in 2015 – despite all that we’ve learned, despite the failures, and despite the rapid change in public opinion – the number of taxpayer-funded animal experiments is moving in the wrong direction. The problem appears to be getting worse, as the number of animals in government-funded laboratories continues to rise.
Bottom line: This trajectory won’t change on its own. In 2015, we have an unprecedented opportunity to end abuse against animals but we must to continue to push our public representatives toward a more ethical and effective research agenda. And maybe – along the way – we can demonstrate our capacity for empathy, too.