Sunday, 24 January 2016

The dirty secrets they don’t want you to know…

Looking in from the outside, animal experimentation is shrouded in secrecy.  It’s certainly not easy to find out what’s actually happening to animals in research labs even though our tax payer dollars are very frequently funding the experiments.   Is it actually that secretive, or are we just not asking the right questions? And if experiments on animals are really necessary to provide useful information to improve human health and wellbeing, why is it so guarded?

We (at HRA) ask questions – a lot of questions.  We don’t however receive many answers.  We regularly request animal usage statistics – a very basic request one would think – but not all states provide these, those that do are often years in arrears, and there is inconsistency between states’ reporting, making a national overall figure very difficult to obtain.  We have now even been advised by the Queensland government that they will “no longer collect statistics on the use of animals for research” partly because “there is no legislative obligation”, they are “not meaningful”, “collecting statistics does not improve the welfare of any animal” and “without a compelling business case to update (the database) there is little incentive to do so.”
Being denied this very basic piece of information would make you wonder how on earth we can get more intricate details of what actually happens behind lab doors.

Here’s one example.

HRA sometimes gets information from “unofficial” sources. Of course we cannot use such information publicly as it cannot be verified.  For that reason we need to pursue official routes to obtain this information.
A few months ago we became aware through several means, of a very controversial procedure conducted on a baboon named Conan.  Shortly after the procedure, Conan was killed due to the development of disseminated intravascular coagulation [Widespread activation of clotting in small blood vessels throughout the body leading to failing blood flow and multiple organ damage.]   The experiment had failed.
While we had sufficient evidence that this had occurred we were unable to use it, so we sought similar research in medical journals and then sent a request under the Government Information Public Access (GIPA) Act to the relevant body to enquire whether the research had proceeded to the level we were aware of.  We were told it hadn’t (which we believed to be untrue).  We therefore resubmitted a new GIPA application naming Conan and specifically requesting details of his death. The response was “to refuse access to the information you have requested because there is an overriding public interest against disclosure of the information.”
So, Conan was killed because the experiment he was used in didn’t work, but you’re not allowed to know about it, even though the breeding of baboons for research is paid for by you through National Health and Medical Research (ie taxpayer-funded) grants.

(Further details on Conan and his companion Scar were featured in the Sydney Morning Herald 24/1/16)

Compare this secrecy with the situation in the European Union.  Article 43.3 Directive 2010/63/EU now requires that non-technical summaries (NTS) are published by the European Member States in order to provide the public with access to information concerning projects using live animals.

NTS 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.

That however, is the European Union, and Australia has no such transparency. Animal experimentation in Australia remains an apparent ‘dirty secret’ and until we can break the shroud of secrecy it will remain difficult, or almost impossible, to have an open and honest debate about what happens to animals and whether it is justified in terms of medical progress for humans.
For further information about the need for transparency please visit Through the Looking Glass.
For more information about Conan (and his companion Scar) visit We remember you Conan.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

It was supposed to be safe!

Yesterday I heard the very disturbing news that a clinical trial in France, has gone terribly wrong leaving one human volunteer brain dead.

“The chief neuroscientist at the hospital in Rennes, Dr. Gilles Edan, said in addition to the brain-dead man, three other men could have "irreversible" brain damage. A fifth man is suffering from neurological problems and a sixth man is being kept in the hospital but is in less critical condition, he said.

The men were included in 90 healthy volunteers participating in a Phase 1 clinical trial of a new drug, code named BIA 10-2474, to treat pain and anxiety by Biotrial - a drug evaluation company based in Rennes, on behalf of the Portuguese pharmaceutical company Bial.
 
The remaining volunteers are being contacted.

The French Health Minister Marisol Touraine has suggested the incident is “unprecedented” and stated of the catastrophe “We'll do everything to understand what happened. I don't know of any other event like this.”

Perhaps the minister is not aware of the TGN 1412 disaster in 2006 whereby six healthy males suffered major organ failure and are now at higher risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases; nor the recall of Vioxx, a drug shown to be cardio-protective in mice yet caused heart attacks in humans; or even Thalidomide, the anti-morning sickness drug which was tested on animals yet caused tens of thousands of physical deformities in children; or perhaps even Diethylstillbestrol, a synthetic estrogen prescribed to pregnant women to prevent miscarriage, but instead Increased spontaneous abortions, premature births and neonatal deaths and also increased risk of vaginal cancer in daughters and granddaughters of users.

These are only those well publicised failures but there are many others recalled on a regular basis due to unexpected side effects not predicted in preclinical trials.

A Phase 1 clinical trial is the first step after pre-clinical (animal) trials have deemed the test substance safe. This particular drug, like those listed above, had undergone extensive animal tests – in this instance including chimpanzees – genetically, our closest relatives!

So, if the animal tests are a precautionary measure to evaluate the safety of these drugs, prior to administering them to humans, why have these unfortunate men been exposed to such a horrendous outcome?

Considering that 95% of drugs that enter clinical trials do not make it to the market, despite all promise of the (animal) models used to develop them[1] it is becoming increasingly clear that our methods of testing need to change, and instead of focusing on animals with different genetics and metabolism to us, we need to embrace the technologies that are specific to humans – not monkeys or mice – because it’s quite obvious that animal tests provide dangerously misleading data.

A paper published this week in ATLA titled “Predicting Human Drug Toxicity and Safety via Animal Tests: Can Any One Species Predict Drug Toxicity in Any Other, and Do Monkeys Help?” is timely.  The paper looks at whether tests on animals, including monkeys, can predict human outcomes. It reveals that drug tests on monkeys are just as poor as those using any other species in predicting the effects on humans. The chances of a getting it right are no better than a coin-toss.

The authors of the study, FRAME Life President Professor Michael Balls and Dr Jarrod Bailey and Michelle Thew of Cruelty Free International, argue that animal testing for human drugs is not ‘fit-for-purpose’. They hope the paper will lead to discussions in the pharmaceutical industry about using more reliable testing methods not involving animals.

I certainly agree, because if we continue using the current flawed system based on animal trials, sadly we are likely to see similar tragedies unfold and far slower progress toward genuine medical cures.

Update:
Since publishing this post one of the volunteers has sadly died and the others who remain hospitalised are at risk of brain damage.


Scientific experts have responded to the news with the suggestion that the risks may have been identified through computational tests:

'Sean Ekins, PhD, who writes at Collaborative Chemistry, has run the BIA 10-2474 structure through two computational algorithms to identify potential protein targets other than FAAH to which the drug might bind. While he stresses that these are simply computational analyses that have not been confirmed experimentally, Ekins writes
“These high scores for many protein targets in humans could suggest the molecule is highly promiscuous and there may not be a single pathway interfered with. Vesicular acetylcholine transporter is slightly lower down in the list which also makes you wonder how many GPCRs might be impacted too. For now this is all idle speculation until we hear more about exactly what happened. Perhaps this compound could be profiled both computationally and experimentally to answer these questions of what the target/s of the toxicity are.”

If Bial performed similar experiments for their drug–biochemical or computational–no similar data has been published or otherwise made available publicly.'







[1] Look Back in Anger – What Clinical Studies Tell Us About Preclinical Work Thomas Hartung, Altex 30, 3/13 (http://altweb.jhsph.edu/altex/30_3/FFTHartung.pdf)

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Do you invest in cruelty?


For many years I have had some concern about ethical investments.  Despite the frequent use of the word “ethical”, not all companies share the same values as me and so my superannuation was placed in the best I could find at the time.  

Several years later I learned of a superannuation fund that did indeed share my values – Cruelty Free Super – and of course I switched to them.  

As many good advisers suggest however, not to keep all your eggs in one basket, I did leave a smaller portion in my previously chosen superannuation fund – Australian Ethical Investments (AEI).

I was concerned to learn recently however, that AEI invests in Cochlear Ltd – a medical company that has recently been the subject of media attention concerning its involvement with research into the effects of cochlear implants.  The research involves rendering healthy cats profoundly deaf, performing craniotomies on them, conducting recordings using microelectrodes in their skulls and then killing them.

HRA was deeply disappointed that such cruel and unethical research is conducted by Cochlear Ltd and puzzled that AEI chooses to invest in such a company.   It therefore respectfully requested that AEI consider removing Cochlear Ltd from the portfolio of companies it considers to be ethical and instead invest in the development and use of innovative technology and research that is directly relevant to the species (humans) it is purported to benefit.

AEI did not share the same concerns. While AEI advised that it considers the wellbeing of animals as an issue in all its investment decisions, its ethical charter allows it to “invest in a healthcare company that conducts animal tests where the testing is necessary and we assess that the human benefit of the company’s products outweighs the concerns about animal testing.”  AEI did acknowledge however that the recent media article included concerning details about the nature of Cochlear’s testing which it had not previously had access to and that AEI will address those concerns with the company.

While I appreciate AEI’s willingness to look into this issue, I am nevertheless concerned that an “ethical” investment company continues to include companies which use animals in medical research in its Ethical Charter.

As the Chief Executive Officer of an organisation that is focused on bringing an end to the unethical and unjustifiable use of animals in research when so many scientific and relevant alternatives exist, I was having great difficulty reconciling my own superannuation investments with both my personal ethics and those of the organisation I lead.  From what I’d already heard, such sentiments are shared by a significant number of HRA members who are concerned that on the one hand they are opposing animal experiments while simultaneously investing in the industry they oppose through their superannuation fund and its choices.

I informed AEI of my dilemma and my intention to move my investments from them. Their response was:
“…we do accept that there are significant limits to the efficacy of animal testing for developing medical treatments for humans, and that these limitations need to be taken into account in deciding whether research programs which use animals should receive ethics approvals to proceed. However, where we currently differ I think is that we still consider that there are circumstances in which the use of animals for medical research and testing may be justified by the potential benefit to humans.”

Needless to say, I am currently in the process of withdrawing my investment from AEI and moving to a fund which is genuinely aligned to my values.


Sunday, 11 October 2015

Thank you Sam. We will be forever grateful.

Like many, I was deeply saddened today to hear of the unexpected death of popular writer and columnist Sam de Brito.

Sad because the loss of anyone, in this case a single father, is always a tragedy, but moreso because Sam had a good heart and was willing to speak out for the voiceless victims of our society – animals.

It was Sam who exposed Cochlear Ltd’s cruel cat experiments in mainstream media. 
During our conversations discussing the article he touched on other areas of animal exploitation and it was clear that the systematic abuse of animals by humans was a heavy burden that was difficult for him (as it is with many of us) to bear.

His columns were passionate and thought provoking. I’m going to miss them during my Sunday breakfasts.

Humane Research Australia will be forever grateful to Sam for exposing the Cochlear/Bionics cat experiments - and other issues of animal cruelty - and extend our deepest condolences to his family.

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.