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TORTURED SOULS: A tug of war over animal testing is dividing the scientific community

At least 90% of new drugs that prove to be both safe and effective in animals fail in clinical trials on humans, according to the NIH. They either don’t work, produce unexpected side effects in humans or even prove lethal.

ROBERTA STALEY: Charu Chandrasekera was researching heart failure at an American Midwest university, using mice and rats as her test subjects. Then, a new creature came into her life: Mowgley, a grey tabby cat. After the adoption, Chandrasekera started seeing Mowgley in the lab animals. They would look at her with the same expressions she saw in her cat, the same “innocence and purity” that captured her heart. She could no longer bring herself to kill the rodents, which share a large part of our DNA and are the animal of choice for biomedical research. Mowgley “taught me all about animal sentience and how animals are so much like us,” she says.

Empathy alone might be enough to stop someone from using animals in their research. For Chandrasekera, who lives in Windsor, Ont., it solidified the hard data she had been noticing. The research she was conducting on heart failure, and later diabetes, didn’t accelerate therapeutic development or actually help people. Animal studies in the rest of the field werenʼt translating well either. “To me, it was no longer justified scientifically or ethically,” she says.

In 2012, after six years of study, Chandrasekera finished her research in the United States and vowed “never to do animal research again.” But then she took her vow further: the very paradigm of biomedical research, she realized, had to change, and so she founded and became executive director of the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods at the University of Windsor. She also created its subsidiary, the Canadian Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods…

Many people assume drugs that are efficacious in lab animals will be safe for humans. Health Canada even requires new drugs to be tested on animals before they can be tested in people. But at least 90 percent of new drugs that prove to be both safe and effective in animals fail in clinical trials on humans, according to the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). In other words, these drugs either don’t work, produce unexpected side effects in humans or even prove lethal…

“Animal modelling,” the term that describes biomedical research about human diseases using creatures like rodents, is also expensive and time consuming. It can take a decade to research and develop a marketable drug, and cost from US$1 billion to US$2.5 billion. One hundred million animals are used in labs around the globe every year. A growing group of scientists says that animal modelling is a waste of research dollars and lives, not only for these creatures but for humans, too.

So why does science continue to insist on animal testing as the gold standard for biomedical research?… Humans have looked upon animals as commodities for experimentation since the time of the ancient Greeks…. Several new non-animal methodologies have emerged in recent years. One is human organs-on-chips. About the size of a computer memory stick with hollow channels lined with living cells that mimic a human organ…

Nonetheless, animal modelling continues to be considered the gold standard of research. This benchmark is founded on four misguided principles, says Carla Owen, CEO of Animal Free Research UK. The first is moral anthropocentrism, or the concept that “humans are best,” based upon the assumption that human needs, wants and desires hold priority in moral calculations, Owen says. The next principles are instrumentalism, the idea that animals exist to serve our interests, and utilitarianism, the argument that animals can be sacrificed because human interests are more important. The fourth is based upon the long-standing assumption that animals are devoid of reason, rationality, language, minds or souls…

Such concepts became institutionalized, Owen adds. “People have built their research careers on the backs of animal experiments”… Moreover, animals can’t protest their treatment; they are incapable of giving or withholding consent, representing their own interests, and understanding or rationalizing their suffering. “We’ve normalized the unthinkable,” says Owen. “We should recognize our dominance, meaning that animals should be afforded stronger — not weaker — protection, much as we give children”…

Chandrasekera says that institutional change will require incentives, like providing researchers with dedicated funding, access to human tissues and other biomaterials, and strict guidelines and policies that prioritize the use of “human-based integrative models.” Currently, researchers who want to use non-animal methods to study human health face systemic roadblocks. “It’s often difficult to get grants or publish papers based purely upon data” gleaned from studies using human-based methods, says Chandrasekera, describing it as “a common problem experienced by far too many researchers in my field”…

Change in research labs is more likely to occur if taxpayers, who fund public research, demand that companies and universities accelerate human biology-based testing. Owen points to the effectiveness of public lobbying against animal testing in the cosmetics industry, which was key to a United Kingdom ban in 1998, followed by a European Union ban in 2013… The bans in Britain and the EU forced cosmetic companies to search out alternatives to animal testing. SOURCE…

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