Myth of the necessity of animal testing

Millions of animals are torn open every year in laboratories because people – and those in government- feel safer knowing that almost everything that reaches us has been tested on an animal before. 

The point is – does it make you safer? Imagine inventing a medicine for a bird. It is only tested on birds. Could it be given to a dog ? Then why should medicine tested on a rat be given to a human?

The human body is extremely complex. Humans differ from other animals anatomically, genetically and metabolically, meaning data derived from animals cannot be extrapolated to humans with sufficient accuracy. When a drug, or other medical treatment, is developed, it must be tested in an entire living system. Using another species is using the wrong system. These basic differences, when applied to an entire biological system become even greater. 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. Dr John McArdle, head of critical care in Hartford Hospital says: ‘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.’ Pre-clinical testing needs to be conducted in such a way that eliminates the risk of species differences.  Good, relevant, and efficient science is what we must ask for, because we get medicines faster and cheaper. How could drugs, or products, tried out on animal bodies possibly be predictors of their effect on human bodies?

Each year, more than 100 million animals—including mice, rats, frogs, dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, monkeys, fish, and birds—are killed in just U.S. laboratories for curiosity-driven experimentation, and chemical, drug, food, and cosmetics testing. Multiply this with every country including India, Nepal and Bangladesh.(India, by the way, has not got a single patent from any testing till date, nor discovered any cure to any disease. That doesn’t stop the government from earmarking 100 acres in Telengana to be used to grow animals for testing).

While scientists may gloss over their lakhs of failures, the factual history clearly shows that animal testing is not much more than a trial and error method. Throughout history, all experiments on animals for human benefit have failed miserably. They have taught us close to nothing about how certain drugs interact with human bodies, and have led to two possible outcomes – either humans are exposed to dangers not predicted in animals, or we are left wanting of important medical breakthroughs because they do not pass at the stage of animal testing.

Look at some statistics from the American Federal Agency for Food and Drug Administration. The Agency has officially stated that 90% drugs demonstrated to be successful in animal tests have failed at the stage of human trials. This means that despite animal tests, in almost all cases, humans have been exposed to drugs with huge potential risks to their health. This not only questions the efficacy and the fundamental argument for using animals, but critically raises the question about all the drugs that failed in animals which might have worked in humans. How many discarded cures exist that might have worked for cancer?

One of the most well-remembered examples of this is the Thalidomide disaster in the 1950s and ‘60s. Thalidomide was an over-the-counter drug that had been proven to be safe during animal testing and was marketed as a sleeping and anti nausea pill. Within a year thousands of babies (I personally know one victim in Delhi), delivered by women who had taken the drug, were born with severe defects such as missing or shortened limbs. These deformities were linked back to Thalidomide, and the drug was banned.

There are many such examples – Clioquinol, an anti-diarrheal drug was shown to be effective in rats, cats, dogs and rabbits, but caused blindness and paralysis when tried on humans; Methysergide, a medicine for headaches, caused the scarring of hearts, kidneys and abdominal blood vessels in humans despite having been demonstrably safe during animal tests. The list is endless.

On the other side of the coin, failed animal tests can also leave us bereft of potential discoveries leading to major medical progress. For example, positive pressure ventilation is an essential technique used to keep a patient’s lungs from collapsing during surgery. This technique was discarded initially as it had not worked on animals. When it was tried directly on humans it became a major scientific breakthrough.

The cage ball valve, used in heart surgery, has a similar story. Didn't work in animals but works on humans. Albert Sabin, the inventor of the polio vaccine, publicly stated that work on the vaccine was long delayed because of misleading experimental models of the disease in monkeys.

Here are statements made by medical and scientific professionals:

Regarding Fleming’s use of penicillin in a human patient, after finding it ineffective in rabbits and dangerous to guinea pigs and hamsters: “How fortunate we didn’t have these animal tests …for penicillin would probably never have been granted a license, and possibly the whole field of antibiotics might never have been realized.” – Howard Florey, co-discoverer and manufacturer of penicillin.

“Uncritical reliance on the results of animal tests can be dangerously misleading and has cost the health and lives of tens of thousands of humans.” – Handbook of Laboratory Animal Science.

In fact, most major discoveries that have come about without any animal testing involved. Heart pacemakers were never tested on monkeys. They were derived from experiments made to keep the electrical activity of the heart going during surgery on humans. Similarly, cardiac catherization for diagnostic purposes was only tested on a human body. Even the technique of bypass surgery was discovered by using a portion of a human’s vein to replace obstructed segments. Anti-foaming agents, that are used to stop blood from bubbling when oxygen is added, were developed to initially stop milk from foaming and were adapted to use in open heart surgery. The technique of cardiopulmonary resuscitation was devised by practicing on human cadavers. Anaesthesia was only first tried out on humans to show its success.

This is not to say that we should indiscriminately start testing on humans. There are new technologies that give far better predictive results than animal testing, such as  microfluidic chips and microdosing. These techniques analyse the effects of drugs on an entire human living system, eliminating error caused by species differences, and resulting in data that is relevant to humans. Systematic reviews, conducted in the areas of toxicity testing and biomedical research, have shown that alternatives are far more predictive of human outcomes than data obtained from animals.

In the past, much research has been based on animals because we didn’t know any better. Today we are far more aware of the dangers of extrapolating from one species to another and we have scientific research methods – mass spectrometry, genome mapping, innovative imaging techniques and highly developed computer models capable of simulating parts of the human body as mathematical equations and three-dimensional graphical models.

Terminally ill patients don’t care whether a cancer drug works on a mouse, or that some disease can be cured in another species. Such claims only taunt them with false hope. They need real cures based on real science – not misleading and antiquated animal experiments. According to the Scientific American magazine “To the 2.6 million people around the world afflicted with multiple sclerosis, medicine has offered more frustration than comfort. Time after time, researchers have discovered new ways to cure laboratory rats of experimental induced encephalomyelitis, the murine model of MS, only to face obstacles in bringing the treatment to humans.”

Not only are the new techniques more accurate. They are much cheaper. A non-genotoxic cancer risk test on an animal costs about $700,000, whereas the same test done in using an in-vitro method costs only $22,000.

However, despite these facts and available alternatives, the myth of the necessity of animal testing continues. This is perpetuated by those who profit from it, and also by those who have been conditioned into thinking it is true. It is time to start raising questions to the so-called ‘expert’ scientific community and policy makers. Why are we wasting billions of rupees killing millions of animals in testing when it isn’t leading to any medical advancement? Whose money is it? Whose health is it?

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi
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*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*