August 14, 2005
Benefits of animal experiments no longer exist
Are we really saving lives?
Animal Liberation Front attacks on vivisection labs are difficult to characterize in terms of how effective they are in achieving their goals. Some would argue such tactics are more effective than given credit for, whereas most would acknowledge that such methods do more harm than good.
But what invariably gets lost in the subsequent emotional fray are questions regarding the usefulness of vivisection. ALF members have a core belief of animal rights that drives them to the extremes of ignoring laws and threatening researchers. But is the emotional aftermath of such action, scientists wailing loudly that cures might have been lost, really an adequate validation of vivisection? If a scientist truly wanted to illustrate the value and efficacy of the animal model, wouldn't the best defense be to show how scientifically valid and analogous such experimental models are to the human condition in question?
Throughout the public debate following the Spence Labs action, University of Iowa scientists offered no scientific evidence as to how the destruction of their work specifically hindered progress to human medicine. Broad, generalizing statements were made about how animal models were necessary and without them people would continue to die. Only this emotionally charged notion of loved ones dying too early was offered as reason for labeling such actions despicable.
This is part and parcel of the animal model. Vivisectors play the emotion card as a means of acquiring public support for their methods. If there's a chance to glean a cure for cancer from a thousand mice, would not the animals' pain and suffering be worth the sacrifice? Nearly all people would answer that their lives are worth such a sacrifice. But sacrificing even a billion mice will not identify a remedy for human cancer. Why not? What is wrong with vivisection as it relates to curing human disease? The answers lie partly in how vivisection began.
Claude Bernard is hailed as the father of modern medical experimentation. A French physiologist, Bernard sought to apply the rigors of chemistry and physics research to the field of human medicine. To open the doors to the innumerable secrets of human disease, Bernard pushed the physician into the research lab. From there, an investigator used his imagination for hypothesis formulation, but when it came to putting these ideas to the test, imagination was to remain at the door. If a hypothesis wasn't testable it was useless. This rigorous approach fit nicely with Bernard's advocacy of causal determinism. He believed that all events have causes and for numerically distinct but qualitatively identical systems, same cause gives same effect.
Bernard was not without morals. He insisted that using human beings for medical experimentation was profoundly unethical. So, he used what he deemed a qualitatively identical substitute: animals. For Bernard, an animal was the same as a human save for differences in scale. Animals had hearts, livers and kidneys and so on. It was obvious that they were made of the same things that we humans were. All a scientist needed to do was adjust for factors of scale (weight, surface area, volume) and causes applied to animals would elicit the same observed effects in humans. This sounds quite familiar to research proposals of today. Scientists are trying to figure out disease X with respect to this protein so they begin with a mouse that has been artificially induced with a variant of disease X while having the relative gene encoding the questionable protein knocked out for comparison with a wild-type animal.
The problem with using animals as causal analogical models is that the science of today is not the science of Bernard's time. To put it another way, an animal model might have had the resolving power to answer some, if not many, of Bernard's questions. But Bernard had no inkling of the dogma of molecular biology (DNA to RNA to protein), nor of gene regulatory networks that are different for every single living organism. Today we are mired with the complexities of unique individual proteomes, gene up and down regulation that can determine why one human twin can tolerate a certain pharmaceutical while the other human twin treats it as toxic. Bernard's causal determinism using animals as men writ small no longer applies.
Bernard went further by rejecting Darwin's theories of evolution, claiming such hypotheses weren't testable. Bernard, and, more specifically, the vivisectors that followed in his stead continued to ignore evolutionary biology and its implications to studying and elucidating causes of human disease. This trend continues today. Vivisectors assume that species differences are insignificant. Moreover, they do so without even attempting to control for the infinite number of variables that two differing gene regulatory networks necessarily possess. In a sense, the researchers of today have kept the lucrative aspects of Bernard's teachings (using animals for grants, publications and job security), yet have ignored his insistence of leaving imagination at the door and only accepting hypotheses that have passed the most critical scrutiny.
Before proclaiming that a mouse or a rat or a primate is a strong causal analogical model for a man, vivisectors should be required to prove as such with properly formulated and fastidiously tested hypotheses. Not unexpectedly, the animal model would not pass such scrutiny. The only other option is to never mention how disanalogous a particular animal is with respect to human disease. The only mention made is of loved ones, young ones, dying. These people will continue to die and diseases will remain unsolved until due attention is offered to non-animal based paradigms and the animal model becomes a relic of the past.
Reach Jake Roos, research scientist at Integrated DNA Technologies, at firstname.lastname@example.org.