issue 215 - January 1991
Hell on earth
Scientist Robert Sharpe used to believe that
experimenting on animals was essential to the advance of medicine.
Now he thinks it is dangerous and unscientific. Why?
Every year millions of animals suffer and die in the world's laboratories. They are burnt, blinded, poisoned, irradiated and starved. They are given electric shocks, made to smoke cigarettes and addicted to drugs. Their limbs are amputated, their eyes surgically removed and their brains damaged. They are deprived of sleep, kept in solitary confinement and inflicted with diseases like cancer, diabetes, herpes and AIDS. For many animals, the experimental laboratory must be hell on earth.
I did not always think so. Like most scientists, I gave the issue little serious attention even though as a research chemist at London's Royal Postgraduate Medical School I witnessed many experiments. Animals were regarded as 'models' or 'preparations' who were not killed but 'sacrificed'.
The awful truth finally dawned when I was persuaded to read Animal Liberation, in which Peter Singer argued that there was no morally relevant difference between ourselves and other animals which could possibly justify their terrible oppression. Animal abuse was another form of prejudice which, like racism and sexism, had no reasonable basis. It was simply that animals, like disadvantaged groups within human society, lacked the power of effective protest. They were the ultimate slave class.
Now, it was one thing to debate such logic with friends and family, quite another to return to the lab and see animals as they really were - no longer mere laboratory tools. The sight of one-day old chicks unable to stand because they were bred deficient in Vitamin D; or large rabbits kept for months in comfortless wire cages, barely able to turn around; and the smell of ether which signalled the death of yet more animals, now stirred painful emotions. I do not apologise for anthropomorphism - only by identifying with their pain, their fear, can we see the desperate need for reform.
My new-found views did not endear me to colleagues who regarded critics of animal research as a threat to academic freedom. One experimenter took to banging his fist on a cage of hamsters because he knew it would upset me. Friends warned that I might be sacrificing a promising career. But I could not erase the image of mass suffering to which I was contributing every time my chemicals were tested on animals. Finally, unable to change things from within, I resigned. Ten years later I am still speaking for the animals.
Yet moral objections sharpen the critical faculties. Rather than accept prevailing dogma that vivisection is essential to the advance of medicine, I soon found that many other doctors and researchers had grave doubts about the scientific validity of animal experiments. In 1980 an editorial in the cancer research magazine Clinical Oncology asked why so much attention is devoted to the study of animal tumours when most human cancers behave differently to the artificially-produced animal model. The writer concluded that it is the study of human patients that will ultimately yield relevant results.
More recently, Perspectives on Animal Research reviewed 10 randomly chosen examples of human diseases injected in animals and found little - if any - contribution towards the treatment of patients.
In fact doctors have known for more than a century that human disease can take a different form in animals. During an investigation of cholera in 1880s, the famous German microbiologist Robert Koch repeatedly failed to induce the disease in animals and was eventually forced to rely on clinical observation and microscopic analysis of actual cases of human cholera. Contemporary scientists are having the same 'problem' with AIDS. Even closely related animals such as chimpanzees do not succumb to the disease when inoculated with HIV.
There are countless examples where drugs react differently in people and animals: morphine calms humans but excites cats; cortisone produces birth defects in mice but not people whilst thalidomide works the other way around; penicillin kills guinea pigs and hamsters and doses of aspirin used for humans poison cats whilst having no effect on horses whatsoever. In 1983 an assessment of rodent tests for the identification of human cancer-causing chemicals found that we would have been better off to toss a coin!
With such differences, tests on animals can be either worthless or positively dangerous because they provide a false sense of security. In the case of Opren (Oraflex in the US), unforeseen effects led to the drug's withdrawal. Deaths occurred mainly through liver damage but company literature stated that 'the effects of benoxaprofen (Opren) in the rhesus monkey were studied for one year. There were no apparent adverse effects on survival.'
The failure of animal tests to warn against toxic hazards is not unusual. The US General Accounting Office found that 51.5 per cent of 198 drugs marketed between 1976 and 1985 had to be relabelled due to 'serious' unexpected side-effects such as heart, liver and kidney failure, severe blood disorders, birth defects and blindness. The labelling changes either limited their use or added major warnings or precautions.
The fact that animal experiments are an unsafe guide to drug safety ought to limit new medicines to those for which there is a clinical need. Yet an analysis by health economist Etienne Barral found that 70 per cent of new medicines introduced into the world market between 1975 and 1984 were 'me-too' drugs, which offered no improvement over existing products.
Vivisection is an error not only because of its unreliability, but because it diverts attention and resources from the study of people. The consequences can be devastating. Unsuccessful attempts to induce lung cancer in laboratory animals by forcing them to breathe tobacco smoke cast doubt on human clinical findings, delayed health warnings for years and cost thousands of lives. The discovery that excessive alcohol consumption leads to cirrhosis of the liver has been questioned due to the failure to produce similar effects in nearly all laboratory animals tested: only in baboons has cirrhosis been induced.
Far more could be achieved, and without harm to animals, by concentrating on methods directly relevant to people. This would include carrying out human population studies (known as epidemiology), clinical investigation work with healthy volunteers and test-tube studies with human tissues.
Already, human studies have provided the prescription for better health. The nineteenth century social reformers used epidemiology to influence sanitary reform and the resulting improvements in public health were chiefly responsible for the dramatic increase in life-expectancy. Drugs and vaccines had only a comparatively small effect. The same measures would transform health in Third World countries where the pressing need is for food, clean water, sanitation and improved living and working conditions. It is careful detective work by modern-day epidemiologists that has enabled us to identify the main causes of heart disease, cancer, strokes and AIDS and has shown how the West's major killers can be prevented.
This does not mean putting people at risk. New medical-imaging techniques allow for the safe, clinical study of individual patients. This must be the way ahead. In the January 1990 issue of Stroke, researchers at the Mayo Clinic, California, revealed that of 25 drugs found useful in treating animals with artificially-induced stroke over the past 10 years, not one had worked in clinical practice. They concluded that ultimately the answer did 'not lie with continued attempts to model the human situation perfectly in animals, but rather with the development of techniques to enable the study of ... living humans'.
Test-tube studies with human cells offer an alternative means of assessing the hazardous and beneficial effects of new drugs. In a major change of strategy, the US National Cancer Institute recently substituted many of its animal tests with cultures of human cancer cells. The Journal of NIH Research acknowledged that traditional tests with mice were failing to identify new treatments against any of the main cancers. Yet it was over 30 years ago, in 1956, that researchers Eagle and Foley first showed that human cancer cells could be used to test anti-cancer drugs.
Nevertheless, human-based research is underrated and underfunded. America's National Institute of Health (NIH) spends about twice as much on animal research as it does on projects with human subjects. Anthony Demaria, President of the American College of Cardiology, has described clinical research in the US as a 'threatened activity' because of the progressive reduction in funding by the NIH.
Clinical investigators are also alarmed by the declining number of autopsies - a procedure critical to our understanding of disease. So serious has the situation become that Robert Anderson, chair of the pathology department at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, insists that 'we know a lot more about the causes of death in old mice than we do about the causes of death in old people.'
Work with human tissues is also widely neglected especially in pharmacology - the study of medicines and their effect on the body. Sandoz researcher Dr Else Muller-Schweinitzer recently reported that 'despite the limited relevance for human pharmacology of most of the animal tissues, the use of human material in pharmacological studies is still the exception rather than the rule'.
On the other hand there seems no shortage of funds for animal research. Despite the well-known effects of alcohol, and the availability of human tissues to supplement further clinical observations, the US Government funded 284 alcohol research projects involving animals during 1986, costing $24 million. Critics of current aid levels to developing nations will be interested to hear of a 20-year research programme at Manchester University in which baby animals are starved to investigate 'early life undernutrition'. It is claimed that one day such research might be helpful in providing more effective relief to the starving.
Nothing better illustrates the mentality and lack of imagination which allows vivisection to flourish, than the Draize test. Shampoos, pesticides, weed-killers, household detergents, even riot-control gases, are applied to the eyes of conscious rabbits to measure irritancy. Rabbits are chosen because they are cheap, readily available, docile and have a large eye for assessing test results. But there are major differences which make the rabbit eye a bad model for the human eye and the test has been repeatedly condemned in the scientific press. Although introduced during the Second World War, little attempt had been made to develop a more humane and reliable alternative. Toxicologists only suggest different species!
At a scientific meeting during 1980, my proposal to use eye tissues as a possible substitute was ridiculed. Only after sustained public pressure have researchers become interested in devising alternatives. Today there are several viable substitutes - including test-tube studies with eye tissues - and some companies have stopped using rabbits.
The mediaeval idea that lives can only be saved by sacrificing others tarnishes the image of medicine as a noble and humanitarian endeavour. Even if animal research had contributed significantly in the past, that is no reason for uncritical acceptance of the method for all time. Moral values change whilst the physiological and biochemical differences between the species stress the urgent need for human-based studies. We need a new generation of scientists who no longer regard animals as the disposable tools of research. If there is to be a more compassionate and civilised future, it must come from them.
Dr Robert Sharpe is a writer, researcher and scientific consultant to the international Animal Rights movement. His latest book, The Cruel Deception, is published by Thorsons (1988).