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. 


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.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

My lazy afternoon with Kitcat

Today I spent a lazy Sunday afternoon lying on the couch with my best buddy, Kitcat. We’ve been through a lot together Kit and I, and I love him to bits.
I remember the day we first met as it was the day the tsunami hit the coast of Thailand, Boxing Day 2004. My own little tsunami entered my life that day and I’ve joked that he has been causing destruction ever since. I was convinced I heard a tiny mewing throughout the day but after several searches around the front garden, found nothing. It wasn’t until I went to bed that night I heard it again, and determined to prove I wasn’t going crazy, opened the bedroom window and saw a tiny scraggly kitten sitting on the sill. I rushed out to rescue the tiny waif with a bowl of milk (first thing that came to mind) and then had the task of keeping him separate from our dogs – one of whom just wanted to eat him.
I still giggle remembering how he played on the billiard table, chasing after the balls and diving into the pockets so his little bum and back legs wiggled out the top as he struggled to break free. As he grew up he comforted me through a marriage break up, settled into a new home with me and then years later lay protectively over me each exhausting weekend as I underwent chemotherapy. Yes, he has been my rock!

Today he lay on my lap as we looked adoringly into each other’s eyes – me massaging his head and whiskers as he purred gently. I got to thinking about by work at HRA – opposing animal experiments. I wondered how anyone could take Kit and use him as an instrument in an attempt to gain some knowledge – any knowledge – for the purpose of writing a research paper. I wondered how anyone could have such disregard for a sentient being with his/her own interests in living and inject them, sedate them, cut into them, implant them with electrodes and kill them for dissection. When did humans become so arrogant to believe that we are so superior to others that we can treat them this way? The fact that data from animals cannot be extrapolated to humans with sufficient accuracy is irrelevant here. Even if it was relevant, it’s still so very wrong.
As Mark Twain famously said, “I am not interested to know whether vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn't...The pain which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity toward it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.”

Every year, in Australia alone, around 6 million animals are subjected to procedures ranging from observational studies to major physiological challenges and even death as an endpoint. This figure includes cats and dogs, farm animals, wildlife and even our closest relatives – primates.

Many people who share their lives with cats and dogs probably understand my affection for Kit and care equally for their own companion animals. They would be horrified to think that their own companions would be used in a laboratory, but every single one of those animals currently used in research is equally deserving. They are all just like Kit, and it breaks my heart to know that they continue to be subjected to such cruelty just because they don’t have a doting carer to protect them from such atrocity and to speak out on their behalf.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

This drug may cause cancer!

We hear about the ubiquitous medical breakthrough or new drug development in the media on an almost weekly basis. Journalists regularly bubble excitedly about a critical or earth shattering breakthrough in cancer research or some other disease that will likely be on the market in ‘only’ 5-10 years. The fact that 5-10 years later we still have no cures and the breakthrough is consigned to the rubbish heap is usually due to the fact that the “discovery” was based on animal studies – the results of which did not extrapolate well (or in fact at all) to humans.
There was one such claim this week though that I found very unusual. Natpara, a (hormone treatment) drug to control low blood calcium levels in patients with hypoparathyroidism, has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It should be available commercially in the second half of 2015. What I did find interesting in this case however is that the drug carries “a boxed warning that bone cancer (osteosarcoma) has been observed in rat studies with Natpara.”

Now I’m not saying that this drug is not going to be successful, and indeed I hope that it will be, but it causes bone cancer in rats and yet it was approved for human use. My point here being is that why were the studies carried out in rats if the results are going to be disregarded? Isn’t the whole premise for using animals supposed to be based on eliminating safety concerns prior to clinical trials? Why did it even proceed to human trials let alone gain FDA approval?

We all know the ratio of drugs that succeed in animal trials but fail in humans (now over 90% - these are the FDA’s own statistics not mine) and this causes grave concerns about the potential human cures that may have been inadvertently discarded due to their failure to provide good results in animals. This Natpara situation seems like a revolutionary step forward – approving a drug, which causes cancer in rats, for human use is surely an acknowledgment that rats differ to humans and are therefore not suitable models for human disease.

So, could we perhaps leave the rats and other animals alone now and focus on HUMAN studies?  Or is this too much like common sense?


Sunday, 11 January 2015

I would put my child’s life before that of a dog.

How often do we hear this claim when confronted with animal experimentation? Well, my response is: Absolutely! What kind of parents would we be if we thought otherwise? The problem is however, that testing on a dog is not going to save your child. It will be a waste of resources and cause delay to medical progress at best; cause a major health catastrophe at worst.
In almost any situation, a parent would choose to save the life of their child over that of another child. This does not imply that their child is more important than another child, but rather it is a basic and instinctual reaction. As with most other species, humans have an intrinsic urge to protect their own offspring in an attempt to further enhance their species. So naturally, with this protective parental view, if it is believed that animal experiments would save the life of a child, then of course a parent would support that research, or pretty much any other activity to save their child.

The problem here is, that sacrificing a dog is NOT going to save your child. Animal experiments are not predictive of human outcomes, so if you genuinely wish to save your child you would be better to rely on a battery of species-specific tests rather than relying on data from a species that differs from us anatomically, genetically and metabolically.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The tide is finally turning. Is the end in sight for animal experiments?

Long term members and supporters of Humane Research Australia will be very much aware of the dangers of extrapolating data from animal tests to humans. They will know about the many species differences that render such ‘research’ unreliable and dangerously misleading. For years we have all used this argument seemingly on deaf ears as a well-meaning public continue to pin their hopes of miracle cures for their loved ones on the back of researchers’ claims of breakthroughs – extremely few of which ever eventuate beyond pre-clinical trials. Despite our arguments and the evidence presented of failed trials and systematic reviews it can often feel frustrating that millions of animals are still being used.

This past week however, I feel there is a glimmer of hope that times are indeed changing!
At the Graeme Cark Oration in Melbourne, Dr Don Ingber MD, PhD from Weiss Institute, presented The Next Technology Wave: Biologically Inspired Engineering

The presentation was excellent. Dr Ingber discussed how our current model of drug development (ie animals) is broken then went on to explain how organs-on-a-chip provide far more accurate data that is relevant to humans and much quicker to evaluate. What impressed most however was the enthusiasm shown by a huge audience of medical and scientific experts. They were actually lauding this new technology.
Still feeling somewhat giddy at the positivity of the event, I arrived at work the following morning to learn of an article published in none other than the prestigious British Medical Journal questioning the role of animals in medical research: How predictive and productive is animal research?

What is the world coming to? At this rate I’ll be out of a job (and my dream realised!)

There comes to mind a saying  by Victor Hugo – “No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.”    Surely the time is nigh and animal experimentation will be delegated to the history books.   We’ll certainly continue fighting until it is!

Monday, 12 May 2014

Leaving out the emotion?

I went for a coffee with an ex-animal researcher just recently. Why? Because, as I mention in my presentations to universities, Humane Research Australia can express their concerns about the use of animals in research, present the reasons why animals are not good models for human disease and can lobby change-makers, but ultimately it is the researchers themselves who are in the best position to actually make a difference. We therefore try to build bridges and find ways to work together rather than hammering at their door telling them they’re doing it all wrong.

What instigated the meeting was his attendance at a presentation I did whereby he challenged my argument that animals should not be used in drug development. He insisted (as researchers always do) that after using computer models, test tubes and  other types of research methods, at some stage the new drug needs to be tested on an entire living system – to seek “the unexpected” - ie interactions with the brain, endocrine system, neurological pathways etc. He is of course correct, however he seemed to have disregarded my point in that they were testing on the WRONG living system, meaning that species differences in an entire living system would become exponential.
Anyway, back to my coffee and chat. We were clearly never going to see eye to eye on a number of issues, but I wanted his feedback on my presentation. What could I do that would encourage researchers to be more open to working with us, to move away from animal experiments and toward more humane and relevant research, after all, surely we all want better health and to not harm animals? This would have to be be some middle ground. His main advice was that I refrain from using emotive talk.

This concerned me, as it’s something I’ve always try to avoid, for two reasons.  Firstly, I don’t think we need to use emotion as the facts speak for themselves. The mere words “animal experiments” conjure up images of animals experiencing fear and pain. Secondly, facts are far less disputable.
Interestingly, when I asked for specific examples of which parts of my presentation had been emotive (in order to improve my talk for future audiences) he was unable to pinpoint what it was that I had said in such an emotive manner. I should point out here that we often hear researchers appeal to our emotions by referring to dying children whose lives would supposedly be saved by animal experiments – but I won’t nitpick!

What concerned me more however, is the fact that he felt it so important to remove the emotion. This seemed to me to be denying that these animals are deserving of our concern. Scientific relevance (of their use) aside, we know that in many cases animals undergo major physiological challenges, with some experiments requiring death as an end point. Were this describing a human child would it not be emotional? Knowing that a sentient being is hurting – whether physically, mentally or emotionally – deserves our empathy, and if those researchers who use animals really believe that emotion should be avoided when discussing animal experiments, then we must be even more concerned by their apparent lack of empathy for those individuals they consider tools for research.
On the other hand, perhaps my factual, non-intentionally-emotive arguments were actually striking a chord. Perhaps by just providing the facts and not trying to invoke sympathy, an emotional reaction was simply inevitable? I believe this is the case, but can only hope.