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.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Animal Experiments have NOT saved your life!

Recent headlines about Italian, Caterina Simonsen, crediting her life to animal experimentation is a sad reflection of how the public are misled into believing that animals are necessary for medical progress.

Ms Simonsen, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder which requires her to use oxygen tubes to breathe, stated "I am 25 thanks to genuine research that includes experiments on animals” and that "Without research, I would have been dead at nine. You have gifted me a future."

The reality is, that whilst animals are widely used for medical research, they are far from being an appropriate model, and certainly could not be credited for any ‘breakthrough’. The genetic, anatomic and metabolic differences between humans and other animals mean that any data obtained from animal tests cannot be translated to humans with sufficient accuracy. Even when genetically modified, there is no single animal model that can accurately mimic the complex human situation. There are far too many unknown variables that cannot all be accounted for.

According to Food and Drugs Administration (FDA – the United States regulatory authority) nine out of ten drugs deemed “successful” from animal experiments fail in human clinical trials. What other industry boasts a 90% failure rate? There are also cases of safe and efficacious human pharmaceuticals that would not pass rigorous animal testing because of severe or lethal toxicity in some lab animal species. It’s therefore worth considering those drugs that failed animal tests which may have worked in humans. Could we have inadvertently discarded a potential cure for cancer?

Penicillin, blood transfusions, Digitalis and Iron Sorbitol were all delayed for many years due to misleading data obtained from animal experiments. Further catastrophes caused by our reliance on animal data include Thalidomide, Clioquinol, Diethylstillbestrol (DES), and more recently, TGN1412 and Vioxx.

There will always be examples whereby researchers will claim that animal experiments were integral to specific discoveries. That’s not to say however that such discoveries (and arguably more) could not have been made by other means, which of course would have been pursued had animals been taken out of the picture.  Additionally, many discoveries were made by non-animal methods, and later experiments on animals served only to convince scientists that these earlier breakthroughs were correct.

Whilst it could certainly be challenged whether any benefit has ever arisen out of animal experiments, it’s worth considering an interesting analogy made by U.S. Dr John McArdle, who said “Historically, vivisection has been much like a slot machine. If researchers pull the experimentation lever often enough, eventually some benefits will result by pure chance.” Such logic however, does not constitute good science. My own analogy is that relying on animals for medical research is like relying on the lottery as an investment strategy.

Without knowing the details of Ms Simonsen’s illness, it would be safe to assert that mice were indeed involved in the discovery of her treatment, but one would need to draw a long bow to conclude that the mice were an integral, or even necessary part of the discovery. Her treatment is therefore available not because of animal experiments, but despite them.

For too long, victims such as Ms Simonsen have been clinging to the false promise of a miracle cure - unfortunately based on animal experimentation.

It’s absolutely essential that we move away from antiquated research using animals and instead embrace the emerging technologies - mathematical and computer modelling, microfluidic chips and non-invasive imaging techniques, each of which provide results which are specific to the human conditions being studied. Perhaps with more focus on these species-specific research methods Ms Simonsen would not be relying on her current treatment, she would instead benefit from a cure!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Of Mice and Men

How often do we read headlines of medical breakthroughs?  Here’s the latest -  the male contraceptive which “could be available in ten years.” (Links below). Interestingly ten years is often the timeframe given for medical breakthroughs to become a reality. More often than not, however, ten years later most people have forgotten and the concept/idea/breaking news silently fades into oblivion.

So it is with some trepidation that I consider the likelihood of this ‘breakthrough’ ever becoming a reality – not because of the usual fate of such proclamations, but moreso because the whole premise is based on successful experimentation on mice.

The male mice used in this study were genetically modified (contained a mutated gene) and sexually matured at 10-12 weeks of age. They were mated with wild-type female mice in cages fitted with infrared video-recording equipment.   Fourteen days after copulation the females were killed and checked for pregnancies.  The males then had their blood pressure and pulse monitored and their sperm was extracted (no description of how this was achieved) and analysed under a microscope.

The results were that no sperm was mixed with ejaculate, so it was not released, and resulted in no pregnancies.  Of particular interest however, was that the infertility was readily reversible.

Another ‘breakthrough’ study, conducted by the University of Chicago, also focused on the development of a male contraceptive – again in mice.   Once again, they established infertility in the male which was also reversible, and the data, it was suggested, “represents another approach toward the development of a male contraceptive”.  That study was submitted for publication in 1989... need I say more?

Admittedly we do share some characteristics and some DNA with Mus musculus, however there are also many differences.    In the case of this particular issue (fertility), the reproduction habits of mice are quite different to our own.  For example if females are housed together without males, they will not come into estrus (heat), however when exposed to male urine they will come into estrus within 72 hours.    Not so with us ladies!    And being an animal of prey, they produce litters of 3 and 14 young and can have five to ten litters per year.    Imagine!     So, you’ll have to pardon my cynicism as to whether data that the scientists obtained from this mouse experiment can truly be extrapolated to the human male with any degree of certainty.

There is another angle to consider. The paper states:

 “…male infertility would have to be 100% in preclinical studies for a novel therapeutic target for male contraception to be considered viable in humans.”

Considering the species differences (anatomic, genetic, metabolic etc.) between mice and humans, as well as the fact that nine out of ten drugs deemed successful in animal trials fail in human clinical trials (that’s the US FDA figures), there's every possibility that those animal studies which failed to attain 100% infertility could have actually been successful in humans.   Could we therefore have inadvertently discarded a male contraceptive based on the failure of animal tests?

Finally, all research on animals is supposed to be subject to a cost/benefit analysis.   Now I’m certainly in favour of curtailing human population growth and understand its’ importance, but I just don’t believe that performing sexual experiments on mice is the way to go about it.

Do we not have a diverse array of contraception already available to us? There are several versions of the female pill, condoms, vasectomies and abstinence.   So, we certainly can’t argue that the development of a male pill is absolutely necessary for the advancement (or not) of humankind.  

And ladies even if, ten years down the track, this particular research does correlate to humans and results in the elusive male pill, how likely will it be that males will actually commit to a daily dose?  Much as we may love the other sex, would you put your absolute trust and faith in the male of the species doing this?    I think we females may just be well advised to continue taking other precautions… just in case!