When I picked biology as my major in college, I was warned at orientation that my profession would someday require me to participate in animal testing. At the time, I believed that people who are interested in the mechanisms of life would treat living creatures with the highest respect. A lioness killing an animal to feed her pride is not pleasant to watch, but nobody could accuse her of doing something wrong. I thought if sacrificing rodents is a necessary step in developing a cure against deadly human diseases, then scientists, like the lioness, were entitled to take lives.
I’ve since learned that people with a critical stance on animal testing are rare in biomedical research and pharmaceutical marketing, and that values are often abandoned for the sake of success and money. I’ve sampled a range: I am a post-grad life scientist who worked as a research associate at excellent biomedical institutes in the United States and Germany. I frequently prepared funding proposals and conference presentations for my supervisors besides performing my lab work. I also worked in the area of pharmaceutical marketing and advertising. My jobs included writing or translating scientific papers and developing product portfolios and PR articles. Until now, I have successfully refused to do invasive experiments on vertebrates, but I worked in labs where these procedures are very common.
I don’t want to bash any of my colleagues; I believe none of them enjoys animal cruelty, but it is the most efficient way to yield results. Instead, I chose to work with human blood samples and leftover brain tissue from epilepsy surgeries rather than use laboratory animals in the research for my thesis in neuroimmunology. I was confronted with a variety of additional methodical difficulties, limitations, and error sources: Patients bear different genetic backgrounds, so I could not pool the cells of different individuals or take one cell line if the other did not grow well. Since nobody would “donate” a healthy piece of his brain, surgeries that yielded physiological material were relatively rare. The logistics were hard to manage as well; I had to recruit patients, cooperate with different working groups, and organize the smooth transportation of the precious tissue from the operation theater to the lab. The time frame of my experiments depended on the availability of material, so night shifts became mandatory. The protocols for the methods I applied were not well-established and external parameters such as food or drug intake, sickness, age, or gender, were beyond my control.
In contrast, my colleagues could just order mice from a catalogue and plan the experiments as and when required. There is no doubt that lab work is more complicated and it takes longer to get publishable results when you refuse to use animals. In our fast-paced world, publishing is the only way to receive world recognition and to guarantee future grants.
Animal testing is regarded as ethical as long as it is essential to answer a specific scientific question that will benefit humans. This loose language obviously leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Don’t humans benefit from sheer profit maximization, and doesn’t every leap of knowledge grow out of a pool of rather useless basic information? It is only a matter of making the right argument. Study and funding proposals universally predict giant steps for mankind, and I have never witnessed any being rejected by the ethics committees.
On the other hand, I have seen hundreds of mice sacrificed to test the effect of a single chemical in a broad dilution series until the results finally reached significance, matched expectations. and were publishable. Pharmaceutical companies funded some of my lab’s studies to test implantable medical devices in living mice—designed for humans, these weighed about the same as the mouse itself. Even when the mice survived the surgery, they couldn’t get up on their feet anymore. I have to question the “proof” of studies like that.
Hundreds of animals were used by my working group alone to develop new in-vivo imaging techniques. I am not too sure if this is a fair trade to get a higher-resolution 3D murine brain atlas. I could go on giving examples, and most of my former fellow students in other research facilities have had similar experiences. A friend who worked for the German Primate Center left the field because he couldn’t cope with what he witnessed.
The argument to perform biomedical research on vertebrates and primates is obvious—the closer our kinship to the model species, the better you can back-reference the results to humans (although “better” doesn’t mean they are interchangeable). But where is the cutoff? We know that virtually everything is possible, and that our curiosity seems a bottomless pit—or a very slippery slope. Few people seem to remember that a significant portion of our medical knowledge was derived from barbarous experiments on Jews in concentration camps during WWII. That alone should demonstrate that the end does not always justify the means.
What I find most frustrating about animal studies is that they are almost always unnecessary and unfruitful in the search for new therapies. As an example, the retrospective investigation of all the animal trials carried out at four major Bavarian universities between 1991 and 1993 demonstrated that only 0.3 percent of the findings were coherent with clinical trials in humans, and none of them led to any clinical therapy within the next 10 years.
The WHO Model list of essential Medicines (published March 2007) presentsÊall the essential medicines necessary for the treatment of priority diseases. The list contains less than 400 pharmaceutical substances; in contrast, pharmaceutical companies in Western industrialized countries flood the market with more than 2,500 “new” drugs every year. The explanation is that only new compounds can be patent-protected and are therefore lucrative to these publicly owned companies that must deliver for their stockholders above all other considerations. The companies need to demonstrate with animal studies and clinical trials that the new compound is effective and harmless, but it is not necessary to prove that the new compound has any advantage to a drug that is already available.
Convincing patients, physicians, and pharmacists that the new drug is better than the old is the mission of a company’s marketing division: product placement during conference talks, subtle PR campaigns, generous presents, and briefing so-called opinion leaders are very common strategies. Often hasty product launches come at the expense of the consumer; the 2001 Baycol case is a typical example. Baycol was another lipid-lowering drug found harmless in animal studies and clinical trials. It was aggressively pushed right after its approval and prescribed to millions of people—until the first reports of fatal side effects. The results from the animal tests protect companies against action from damages, even though it is widely known that each species may react completely differently to the same chemical. Is it safe to call this strategy an alibi?
While diseases mount, the model of inducing these diseases in animals so we can study and learn how to cure them has amply demonstrated its failure. We know that most disease is associated with our lifestyles: Smoking, alcohol, inappropriate diet, lack of exercise, stress, and pollution result in cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, obesity and reduced immune function, just to name a few. How can anybody expect to invent a pill that will cure us from ourselves?
We say that rationality distinguishes the human being from the animal world. As we are also the only species knocking our planet out of whack, I wonder how rationality is defined. I have come to believe that our duty is not to tap the potential of scientific understanding in an effort to control nature, but to use that potential to find ways to live in harmony with its lessons.
I “resigned” from lab work after completing my thesis. The frustrating feeling that my labor had not been useful has never left me. And after three years of research, my scant results were only enough to publish as an “add-on” to my group’s mouse data in a high-impact paper.
Since then, I’ve focused on using my training for freelance science writing and education. Few people would sympathize with the reasons behind my career move, but my reward is the ability to smile at myself in the mirror. Every scientist must decide what she will or will not do, and although I had a tough time, I’ve never regretted my decision.
For more, see Lindl, T., Všlkel, M., Kolar, R.: Literature survey of 51 approved legal proposals for animal experimentation purposes: No evidence for any human therapy after 10 years is apparent. Abstracts 5th World Congress 2005, ALTEX 22, Special Issue 2005, 101 and www.who.int/medicines/publications/EssMedList15.pdf