The lecture about responsible and reliable research presented by LeBreque sparked a lot of great conversation on the blog about unethical research and how much has changed in the past 50 or so years. Studies like the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male resulted in better regulation of things like informed consent in studies involving human subjects in order to try to prevent experimental issues like this in the future. A comment on another blog post how the use of subjects, both human and non-human, is an evolving topic, and it made me wonder whether or not use of animals for scientific research will one day be considered unethical by the majority. I use mouse models in my research, and while I am not happy about it, I understand that they are being used for the greater good of advancing research, even if they are being used without their consent, and regardless of the fact that we are giving them diseases they most likely would not have contracted otherwise.
I decided to look into some of the current concerns related to use of animal research, and found an article posted by the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS). According to the article, 24 of the 30 Institutes and Centers that make up the NIH use animals in their research, and about 40% of NIH-funded grants and contracts involve animal research. We use animal models under the assumption that they recapitulate humans biologically, and while we know animal models can represent human diseases and responses well, in many cases the way animals respond to treatment does not mimic human responses. The article gives examples such as how "forcing dogs to inhale cigarette smoke did not show a link to lung cancer; Flosint, an arthritis medication, tested safe in monkeys but caused deaths in humans; and the recalled diet drug fen-phen caused no heart damage in animals, while it did in humans". More than 25 million animals are used yearly in the U.S. in all areas of research, testing, and education, and the article says that statistically, 92% of drugs tested in animal and approved for human trials fail. Outside of drug studies, I would be curious to see how much of the data obtained through use of animals successfully models outcomes or responses in humans.
The article points to how factors like stress, which is often experienced by animals in labs, negatively influences the reliability of animal research data. According to the article, stress influences heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, muscular activity, and hormone level, and can influence results observed in studies. Cost of using animals in research is another issue addressed by the article. Animal research is a multi-billion dollar industry, with interest from the animal importers, breeders, dealers, cage and equipment manufacturers, feed producers, and drug companies. Additionally, purchase and maintenance of animals is expensive. "Rats, mice, and birds are the main animals used, not because they are necessarily the best or most reliable, but because they are relatively inexpensive to buy, easy to manage and maintain, and because they are disposable without much public clamor or concern."
Another point made by this article was related to the development in the last 10 years of using transgenic models for medical research. While transgenic models are great for attempting to remedy the biological differences between humans and animal models, the NEAVS article pointed out that if transgenic models are needed to genetically improve existing animal models, perhaps animal models really aren't justified for research use, because they really don't have biological and/or clinical relevance.
I agree that animal models are not perfect for researching human conditions, but I also cannot think of a non-animal alternative that is a better solution. I also believe that there should be some sort of in vivo model used after in vitro studies before testing drugs or whatever else in humans. The article blames a lack of alternatives on the investigators, but I don't see them offering any alternatives either. I guess time will tell whether animal research is eventually considered unethical, but I don't think that will come until someone comes up with a good non-animal alternative that does not jeopardize progress made with testing human subjects.