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.

http://www.smh.com.au/world/i-would-have-been-dead-at-nine-caterina-simonsen-in-hospital-after-backlash-over-defence-of-animal-testing-20131230-hv75n.html

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!


Friday, 9 August 2013

The Age of Research

For some time now, HRA has been publishing case studies on our website which aim to highlight animal experiments that have occurred recently. They provide a simple explanation of animal experiments, broken down to layman’s terms to demonstrate that the experiments that occur behind lab doors are not some exaggerated claims from yesteryear. They are happening right here and now. Recent posts however, have unveiled another issue of grave concern.

HRA published “Invasive surgery conducted on conscious greyhounds” in May 2013. The information about this experiment, conducted by University of Newcastle, was obtained from a 2011 medical journal Acta Physiologica (Scandinavian Physiological Society).
Dogs obviously attract more empathy than rodents (unfortunately for the latter) and this particular expose clearly struck a chord with many individuals as well as greyhound rescue groups. The university at which this experiment was conducted must have received an unusually high number of complaints as their public relations department promptly issued a press release in response to our claims. The release stated “The research in question was conducted prior to 2004 and published in 2011. Dogs have not been used for research at the University of Newcastle for more than ten years.” 

This in itself is good news – because they are no longer using dogs (if the claim is indeed correct) and they have clearly felt the need to defend their actions in using greyhounds in such a way.  It does not however, absolve them from the responsibility of conducting this experiment.

Of additional concern however, is why research allegedly over seven  years old is being published in a 2011 medical journal?

HRA wrote to the Chief Editor of Acta Physiologica , to verify if the journal was aware that the research submitted to them was conducted prior to 2004 and whether they have a policy of accepting data collected within a specified timeframe.  Its  response was “I can confirm that, from the start of the journal in 1889, there was probably never a time frame (from when publication should occur relative to experimentation).  At least it is never mentioned in any historical documents. I do not fully understand why there should be a time frame
.

This is cause for concern and the practice at best is misleading.  Decade old research published today seems to question the integrity of published Australian research. What does this mean for any researchers who cite this study in their own papers as 2011?  Is it not reasonable to  assume that research cited from a 2011 publication would be relatively recent?  At the very least why isn’t the research provided with a date?


This is not the first occasion in which researchers have implicitly misled the reader. On a
previous case study regarding baboon research, conducted by Royal North Shore Hospital and published in The Bone and Joint Journal 2010, it was (subsequently) claimed to have been conducted over 20 years ago.

Similarly, an experiment involving rats on electric wired floors was publicised by HRA and obtained from another recent medical journal (2010). In a personal conversation with a representative of the institution I was informed that the research was conducted more than ten years ago. When questioned why it appeared in a recent publication I was told that “the researchers didn’t want it sitting on a shelf gathering dust”.  So to put this into perspective, sentient animals were exposed to unnecessary cruelty, and until recently the results of this no doubt critical experiment were left to gather dust on a bookshelf.


Again it raises the question of why publication was so delayed.  If the research was considered worthy enough to conduct in the first place, then why was it not published earlier so that any purported benefit could be shared and utilised by the scientific community?  We understand that researchers exist in a “publish or perish” world, so would the cynical amongst us suggest that  it could be that they are submitting “old” work for publication simply in order to increase their chances of obtaining further funding?


Meanwhile, back to the greyhounds. HRA is still waiting to receive a response from the University of Newcastle on a number of concerns we had with the experiment, including where the animals were sourced from.  It is suspected that they are failed racing dogs but we would like clarification.

We have also lodged an FOI request with the university seeking a copy of the relevant Animal Ethics Committee Minutes which approved the experiment, as well as the AEC annual report.

HRA will pursue this issue and urge medical journals to be vigilant in ascertaining the date research was conducted prior to publication.


Friday, 2 August 2013

Are you a hypocrite for taking medications if you are opposed to animal experimentation?

These days, it’s relatively easy to adhere to a cruelty-free lifestyle when it comes to cosmetics and personal and household products.  Animal testing is not a legislative requirement and there are countless cruelty-free options.  Medications however, are a different story.

Regardless of whatever drugs we take – be they pain-killers, antibiotics or chemotherapy drugs – at some stage in their development every one of them will have been tested on animals.  And there would be very, very few people opposed to animal research who can claim to have never taken any medications based on their ethics. Does this make those people hypocrites?  I don’t believe so.
This is an issue that reigned heavily on me when initially diagnosed with breast cancer almost two years ago, and something I have considered at length.  I was acutely aware of the vast financial resources invested in cancer research – much of which involves animal experimentation.  Being staunchly opposed to animal experiments my situation posed a massive personal dilemma, and so I undertook my own research to help me reconcile my ethical choice in regards to my own health.

Naturally, every one of us has an interest in remaining alive and healthy, and we should take advantage of whatever medications are available to us today. I am, of course, not opposed to medicines, nor the use of a drug where it could be of benefit.  I am however, very much opposed to the way in which they have been tested.  These medications will have been tested on animals due to legislative requirements (mainly the US Federal Drug Administration –aka the FDA).  But the fact that they were used in the process does not imply that they were a necessary part of the development.
Nine out of ten drugs ‘proven’ effective in animal tests fail in clinical trials. That’s a massive 90% failure rate.  What other sort of industrial process would survive with an absurd 90% failure rate?  There are so many differences between animals in their anatomy, genetics and metabolism which make them inappropriate models for human medicine.  Consider Tamoxifen for example – the drug I am now taking to block oestrogen.  In monkeys and rats, Tamoxifen can also act as an anti-oestrogen, but in mice, dogs and rats it can have  the opposite effect, behaving like an oestrogen. Can we therefore credit the release of this drug to animal experiments?  Or does this illustrate that animal experiments are unreliable?

In short, the drugs we have available to us today are here not here because of animal tests but despite them.  Rather than shunning them, we should instead be pushing for non-animal methodologies that are species-specific and more likely to be effective.
My personal investigations into chemotherapy drugs revealed that the drugs I was to be given (Adriamycin, Cyclophosphamide and Taxol) were discovered more than forty years ago – almost before I was born.  It didn’t make sense to me.  We’ve seen countless news headlines over the past few decades heralding cures for cancer - all of course based on animal trials. Where was that miracle cure now that I needed it?  And what have all the millions of animal lives lost and billions of dollars pumped into cancer research in the interim achieved?

Instead of being grateful for the limited number of treatments we have available to us today, we should instead be dissatisfied that there are still no cures for cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, diabetes and many others.  Imagine the treatments and possibly even cures we could have available to us today if the magnitude of resources wasted on ineffective animal experiments throughout the last few decades had been redirected to species-specific research.
With cosmetics and household products we have a choice – an option of using cruelty-free.  It’s not only imperative that we have cruelty-free options with our medicines; it’s essential if we are to find genuine cures.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

My entry to the world of blogging


Those who know me may well wonder why such an opinionated person as myself has not already joined the Blogosphere. The truth is that most things I have to say are already published on Humane research Australia’s (HRA) web pages. This however, is a personal blog, allowing me to express my opinion, and I should therefore qualify that comments made on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the position of HRA. Having said that, my opposition to animal experimentation is so closely aligned with the mission and objectives of HRA that I think you will be hard pressed to find much discrepancy between the two.

So, feel free to follow my blog, read my rants and share with others, then post your own comments – whether you agree with me or not. I can of course moderate the comments because it’s MY blog ;-) Seriously though, I do encourage your participation, and if it stirs up debate then that’s wonderful, because that’s exactly what I want to achieve. Unless the issue of animal experimentation is discussed openly then we can never hope to achieve anything for the 6 million animals (in Australia) that are used in research every year.

So, let’s end animal experiments!