Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Are humans more important than animals? And is THAT the reason animal experimentation continues?

I need to clarify an important point that continues to be misunderstood by the general public and the media.

While (almost) everyone abhors the idea that animals, including primates, are harmed and killed in cruel and invasive experiments, the bottom line almost always seems to be that while there are humans suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, HIV etc. “these awful experiments must unfortunately continue”.

The question of whether humans are more important than animals is subjective (some may argue for example that rapists, murderers and paedophiles should be used instead), but importantly, most of all, it’s irrelevant.

The people who are suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, HIV etc. are precisely the reason we should NOT be experimenting on animals. It is grossly unfair to these people – people who are depending on medical research to save their lives – to waste valuable and precious time and resources on studying the wrong species.

To use some references from the Victorian Medical Research Strategy currently under review:

  • Page 17 of the discussion paper recognises the challenges of “PhD students and scientists confronted by issues related to career progression, security and remuneration.” Often they resort to animal use simply in order to obtain funding and to enable publication of their work. 
  • Page 19 of the discussion paper states that “Australia punches far above its weight by producing 3 per cent of global research publications with only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population. However, compared with international standards, Australia has a poor record of commercial translation…” 

Consider too, Australia’s rate of animal use in research. We are the fourth highest user of animals in pure numbers behind only China, Japan and the United States, which makes us number one in terms of usage per capita.

According to the latest statistics, Australia uses over 6.7 million animals each year. A high rate of global research publication has little value when the subject matter is based on animal experiments and is therefore unlikely to translate to genuine medical progress (the United States Federal Drug Administration’s own statistics show that more than 90% of drugs ‘successfully’ tested in animals fail when translated to humans in clinical trials). And academic recognition is no excuse for subjecting sentient animals to cruel and invasive procedures.

In fact if you look at the US FDA statistics another way, how many cures could have been overlooked that didn’t work in animals in the first place?

The bottom line is that there are far too many intricate differences between humans and animals – differences including gene expression and protein function – that render animals inappropriate models for human research. If we are ever to find genuine cures for cancer and other ailments, (and find them quickly) we must focus on species-specific research – not antiquated methods that are more often than not, erroneously extrapolated from a species that differs from us anatomically, genetically and metabolically.

There are so many species specific methods of testing now, including microdosing, microfluidic chips, computer modelling and non-invasive imaging techniques of human patients. So, let’s stop taunting the sick and invalid members of our population with the promise of cures derived from animal experiments. Let’s instead, provide them with real hope through more efficient and more relevant methods of research – methods that will translate into genuine medical progress and result in better health outcomes for society.

Regardless of who you consider more important – humans or animals – animal experimentation is a waste of precious resources and needs to end now – for the sake of the humans who continue to suffer.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Cochlear Ltd’s Annual Report announces increase in revenue and earnings, but what price profit?

Today’s release of Cochlear Ltd’s annual report shows their revenue is up by 15% and earnings per share up by 56%. The announcement may well excite those investors keen to see an increase in value of their share portfolio, but at what cost has this profit been?

Cochlear Ltd has recently been the subject of media attention concerning their involvement with research into the effects of cochlear implants. The research involves rendering cats profoundly deaf, performing craniotomies, conducting recordings using microelectrodes and then killing them.

Research into the alleviation of deafness (and blindness) is of course a credible and worthwhile endeavour, however the use of a different species for this research – in this case cats – is highly questionable. It is becoming increasingly acknowledged that animals are poorly predictive of human outcomes and are therefore not good models on which to base scientific research.

Within a recent publication[1] the researchers themselves refer to the significant differences between even cats and rabbits, and note that the use of anaesthetised cats has profound effects on the relevance and utility of the experiment.

The international condemnation of the dentist who killed Cecil the lion suggests that financial profit does not justify the killing of a sentient animal. What of other animals – in this case 16 young cats deafened and killed.

It is disappointing that Cochlear Ltd invests in such unethical and unscientific experiments instead of innovative technology and research that is directly relevant to the species (humans) it is purported to benefit and shareholders would do well to object to their investments used in such a way.

[1] Fallon, J.B., Shepherd, R.K., Nayagam, D.A.X., Wise, A.K., Heffer, L.F., Landry, T.G., and Irvine, D.R.F. ‘Effects of deafness and cochlear implant use on temporal response characteristics in cat primary auditory cortex’. Hearing Research. 2014

Monday, 27 July 2015

Are you donating to animal cruelty?

7th August is Jeans for Genes Day. It’s one of those feelgood days where people can raise awareness and funds for vital medical research – and have fun at the same time.

Jeans for Genes Day is in support of the Children’s Medical Research Institute (CMRI), and who wouldn’t want to support an organisation that saves children?

Unfortunately however, there is a dark side.

Many kind donors are not aware that their financial contributions to medical research charities might actually be funding animal experiments. This is not something that charities often publicise, so I contacted CMRI to find out what their position was. Their response was as follows:

Thanks for your email. The majority of our research does not use animals, and we do not do ‘animal testing’ as it’s known in the media, but we do some studies with mice and rats to understand how genetic diseases and birth defects occur and how to treat or prevent them. Unfortunately, at this point in time it is impossible to understand these diseases without working with an animal, but we do try to do as much work as possible using human cells in culture or other methods. We can’t hope to find cures and save children’s lives without some animal studies, so I hope you will support Jeans for Genes and our vital research.

Medical research can, of course, progress to save human lives without experimenting on animals. Rats and mice are not good models on which to base human medicine due to the vast number of differences in our genetics, anatomy and metabolism. For these reasons they are poorly predictive of human outcomes and many scientific papers, systematic reviews and meta analyses support this position.  There are however many emerging technologies such as organ-on-a-chip, microdosing and non-invasive imaging techniques which not only eliminate animal suffering, but also provide data that is directly applicable to the species it is purported to save - humans.

CMRI’s justifications for using animals are all too familiar. Almost every institution that uses animals in research suggest that they are only used when absolutely necessary and that they adhere to strict guidelines and a code of practice. The guidelines and policies that govern animal use in research are far from strict. The National Health and Medical Research Council, Animal Research Review Panel and Agriculture Department have little control in the research as it is all considered and approved by the Animal Ethics Committee - a body which has a vested interest in allowing the research to go ahead. It is therefore self-regulated, non-transparent and hidden from public scrutiny. They do not protect animals from suffering and they don’t address the fact that animal experiments are not good at predicting human outcomes.

Neither I, nor HRA, have any right to tell you who or who not to donate to, but please be aware that your generosity may well be inadvertently funding cruel animal experiments. You may prefer to redirect your donation to a health charity that does not conduct or fund animal experiments. You can find a listing of these at www.humanecharities.org.au

Alternatively, if you do choose to participate in and/or donate to Jeans for Genes Day, please specify that you want your donation to go toward research that does not involve animals.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Is wildlife research justified if it’s to benefit the species?

When most people think about animal experiments they envisage mice, rats or monkeys kept in laboratory housing, induced with diseases or cancer and injected with vaccines. While this is true of some forms of medical research, the issue of animal experimentation actually covers a much wider spectrum. Many animals are used for agricultural research – intended to increase productivity or improve welfare standards – and are often studied on (factory) farms. Many more are used for environmental and wildlife studies and the general perception is that such research is perhaps more justified considering the procedures are less invasive and the outcomes are to benefit the animals themselves.

One of the major arguments against the use of animals in research is ‘species differences’. Data cannot be extrapolated from one species to another with sufficient accuracy due to anatomic, metabolic and genetic differences. Of course this argument becomes invalid when research is conducted on (for example) a platypus in order to learn more about the platypus. Does this therefore mean that it’s acceptable to conduct research on wildlife if it is to benefit that species?

Some years ago, I attended the Victorian Bureau of Animal Welfare’s Scientific Seminar which was about this very topic. My concern was that wildlife research was not as benign as most people are led to believe. My concerns were verified at this seminar.

In order to study a species – even in its natural environment – the animals must be located, identified and monitored; all of which can involve risk to the individuals. The collection, taking, trapping, marking and banding of wildlife, however, are exempt from licensing by the state department. Licensing IS required when other procedures such as taking samples are carried out.

Trapping of animals can lead to stress and injury. Problems can include the animals being impaled by bait hooks or catching their eye sockets as they become distressed, panic and thrash around the cage. They must also be monitored regularly as small animals can quickly lose body heat throughout the night and be dead before they are collected in the morning by researchers, or suffocate in the heat of day if left for too long without water. Leghold traps, still legally used in Victoria (under certain specifications) can render prey animals vulnerable to predators.

Traps also carry the problem of missing the target species and capturing ‘pest’ animals. This leads to the further dilemma of wasted lives as it is considered illegal to release them and there are poor procedures for dealing with what are considered ‘by-catch’.

According to Dr Kath Handarsyde of Melbourne University Zoology, studying wildlife gives rise to other biological variables that are not applicable to a controlled laboratory setting. These include: no previous knowledge of the underlying health status; no clear understanding of the biology which leads to uncertainty over which anaesthetic is best nor how they will respond; and wild animals don’t have food and water ad-libitum and there is therefore need to be conservative, eg by reducing sample volumes.

There was further discussion at the seminar about the difficulties in monitoring and protecting animals upon release, control of infectious disease, poor understanding of methods of anaesthesia and the use of spotlights causing damage to sensitive and nocturnal eyes.

Even non-invasive techniques such as the use of ‘hair tubes’ have caused death to smaller animals due to the strength of the adhesive used to capture hair from animals without having to trap them.

While all of these risks need to be considered when weighing up the justification of wildlife research, a closing comment from Max Campbell (DPI Wildlife and Small Institutions AEC) summed up the issue very well, when he acknowledged that all wildlife is struggling to survive and asked whether we actually need the information obtained from the research or will it simply sit in a library of data. This, I believe, is a pertinent question for all forms of research – is it justified in the first place or is it being done simply out of curiosity, because ‘curiosity’ is not a justification for harming or killing.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

The 3R's - Time for change!

It’s been 56 years since William Russell and Rex Burch proposed the three R’s – replacement, reduction and refinement -in their manuscript The principles of humane experimental technique (1959). The recommendations, which have been universally accepted, were intended to reduce the overall amount of suffering caused to animals during research.

The 3R’s serve as complementary rules of thumb to reduce overall suffering and form the framework of the animal ethics system. When we consider the continued rise in animal usage statistics however, it is clear that this framework simply isn’t working.

At conferences I have attended there has been quite some focus on refinement but very little on reduction and specifically on replacement. Similarly, the use of animals in education is a clear example of an area in which we CAN replace animals and yet they are still being used.

Even according to co-author William Russell, “Refinement is never enough, and we should always seek further reduction and, if possible, replacement… Replacement is always a satisfactory answer.”[1]

It’s absolutely essential that we ask the question, “Can the aims of the research be achieved in ways that do not involve animals?” And “Will the scientific outcome of this research justify the lives it will take and the suffering it will cause?” In many cases you will find that it will not.

The House of Lords Select Committee 2002 has said: “We are not, however, persuaded that enough effort is always made to avoid the use of animals. We are similarly not persuaded that where this is possible, sufficient effort is always made to minimize the number of animals used, and to minimize the pain and suffering inflicted on each animal.”[2]

The major problem with the 3R’s principal, along with legislation, codes of practice and ethics committees, is that they serve to endorse the belief that animal experiments are necessary, rather than challenge its validity.

A radical overhaul is long overdue – a centralization of the decision-making process in order to avoid repetition of experiments, ensure for consistency and to guarantee that decisions are made based on expert knowledge of the alternatives available and the ethics of whether the experiment is even justified in the first place.

The 3R’s principal has served us well to identify the areas in which the suffering caused to animals in research may be reduced. But all laws, guidelines and principals need to be constantly reviewed, and after fifty six years such a review is long overdue!

[1] Quoted in ATLA 34, 271-272, 2006.
[2] House of Lords Select Committee 2002 Animals in Scientific Procedures (Norwich:TSO), quoted in The ethics of research involving animals, Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2005, p.206

Thursday, 12 March 2015

A breakthrough in Alzheimers research!

I learned last night that there had been another medical breakthrough – ultrasound treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.  

With an ageing population and increased cases of dementia this is indeed wonderful news for all of us as we grow older.  Or is it?

You see the research was based on mice – not humans – little rodents which are not quite the same species.
The research was carried out by the University of Queensland and funded by Australian taxpayers via the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council.  What our tax dollars actually paid for was 20 mice genetically-engineered (a problem in itself as humans generally aren’t) to develop plaques in their brains and then given ultrasound sessions.  Their memories were then tested by means of navigating a maze and an avoidance test which involved being given electric shocks. Following the tests their brains were inspected for plagues.
The results showed that the ultrasound sessions reduced plaque and apparently improved the memory of the mice without causing any tissue damage, and the researchers say this has the potential to treat conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. However the researchers themselves even acknowledged many hurdles due to species differences.
  • The human brain is much larger, and the skull thicker, so the ultrasound would need to be stronger to penetrate all areas of the brain. This could have negative consequences, such as causing damage to healthy brain tissue.
  • There are concerns that the level of immune response that might be activated in the human brain could be too high.
  • The mice in the study already had plaques when the ultrasound was started. The researchers do not know at what point of Alzheimer’s disease it would be appropriate to start treating humans. They are concerned that if they gave ultrasound to people with very early Alzheimer’s disease when there are few amyloid plaques, it may damage brain tissue.
  • The study did not look at the long-term effects of the treatment.
So what does this all amount to? Sadly, “further animal studies will now be required, progressing to primates, before any human trials can take place.”

Everyone I know including myself wants a cure to Alzheimer’s disease and its terrible effects on not just the victim but the entire family.   One has to wonder however whether such breakthroughs will ever amount to actual cures or if they are justifications to conduct yet more animal experiments.  
In the meantime we will no doubt continue to hear about medical breakthroughs and pivotal discoveries – unfortunately almost always based on a different species - that continue to give us false hopes that a cure is just around the corner. 
The sad reality is that nine out of ten drugs tested successfully on animals don’t work when extrapolated to humans.  This is the US FDA’s own research.   It's logical to assume that the ten percent or less that do, are more likely to work in spite of being tested on animals rather than using animals in the first place.   While this is not a drug as such, the reasoning holds true about using a different species and we really must get smarter and use more scientific methods that directly relate to human biology. 

Source: http://beforeitsnews.com/health/2015/03/ultrasound-breakthrough-in-treating-alzheimers-in-mice-2566140.html

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

What are you hiding?

Animal experimentation is a secretive industry. I am constantly amazed (and frustrated) that so many people are oblivious to the fact that animal experiments are conducted in Australia. In fact, a Nexus survey commissioned by Humane Research Australia revealed that “57% of respondents were not even aware animals are used in experimental research in Australia”, yet around six million animals are used every year – and Australian taxpayers are funding much of it.
So, why do so few people know what’s going on? If animal experiments are so essential to human health why aren’t researchers flouting their use? Perhaps it’s because they are not essential. Perhaps it’s because they can, instead be dangerously misleading. And perhaps these researchers know in their hearts that what they are subjecting animals to is actually very cruel and they don’t want people to know.

If you write to any company or institution about animal use they will almost always reply that they only use animals when absolutely necessary, they adhere to strict legislation and codes of practice and that their work is approved by an ethics committee. To any person less familiar with the industry that response might be quite comforting. The reality is however that the current systems do little to protect animals from suffering. Consider the lambs shaken to death to prove shaken baby syndrome, or chicks brains injected with memantine to test their memory or feeding alcohol to mice to induce depression. Can each of these be justified because they were approved by an ethics committee, or that there was no alternative?

These experiments were funded by Australian taxpayers – surely the tax payer has a right to know what Australian taxes are being spent on?
Yet obtaining information about what actually happens to animals in research can be a challenging process. Questions to the funding bodies are usually directed to the state departments responsible for animal welfare. State departments commonly refer questions back to the funding body.  Requests for information – minutes of Animal Ethics Committee (AEC) meetings, annual reports - are denied, and straightforward requests such as statistics are at best difficult to obtain.

Those of us who oppose animal research have an obvious interest in more disclosure. We believe that if the public was adequately informed, there would be more pressure to stop or minimise it. But so arguably do those who see a need for such research and are concerned about the respect for animal welfare in laboratories.
Greater transparency is also supported by significant voices on the research side. More information, it’s argued, would dispel some of the inaccuracies about research coming from animal advocates. It would also help educate the public about what are seen by many in the biomedical community as significant benefits to humans. For example, at the 44th annual Society for Neuroscience Conference last year, scientists and activists urged their colleagues to be more open about animal testing in research, saying transparency will foster understanding of the research and its use of animal models.

But while it may be that all sides of the animal research debate desire transparency, Australia remains behind the rest of the world, making minimal effort towards openness, better communication, greater accountability and more public access to information.
The European Union has addressed such concerns and Article 43.3 Directive 2010/63/EU now requires that non-technical summaries are published by the European Member States in order to provide the public with access to information concerning projects using live animals.

These summaries must include title, purpose, objectives and benefits, number and type of animals, predicted harms and application of the 3Rs (Reduction, Refinement & Replacement). They must be written in non-scientific language and accessible for five years.
Certain projects (including those which use non-human primates) must also undergo a retrospective analysis – a powerful tool to facilitate critical review of the use of animals. It is believed that this facilitates improved design for similar studies, raises openness of best practice and prevents mistakes.

Summaries are compulsory in the EU States since2013 and are certain to make a significant contribution to transparency.
Australia does not have a good reputation when it comes to animal usage. It is the fourth highest user in actual numbers (first in ratio to population), behind only China, Japan and the United States, with no commitment to reduce the numbers used. Unlike more progressive nations Australia does not have any government-funded institutions dedicated to the development and validation of alternative research methods. 

It’s time the Australian research community follows the lead of the European Union by lifting the veil of secrecy so that we can all have an open and honest debate about animal experimentation. Until such time the issue will remain polarised and animals will continue to suffer – in secret – in laboratories.