In June 2013, in a talk at the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., Dr. Elias Zerhouni, NIH Director from 2002 to 2008, ended his presentation with three key lessons. The agency's online newsletter, NIH Reporter, summarized one of them like this:
“We have moved away from studying human disease in humans,” he lamented. “We all drank the Kool-Aid on that one, me included. With the ability to knock in or knock out any gene in a mouse — which can’t sue us,” Zerhouni quipped, “researchers have over-relied on animal data. The problem is that it hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem. … We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.”
More than 45,000 dogs and 68,000 monkeys have been killed in Madison at UW-Madison and Covance over the past 10 years, according to reports submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture by each facility. Many of these animals have endured multiple experimental procedures and profound environmental and social deprivation.
Supporters of this use of animals claim that their suffering is justified by the medical advancements that are being made, but verifiable evidence of much medical progress as a result of using these animals does not appear to exist.
Once upon a time it was possible to learn something that might have shed some light on human biology by experimenting on animals, but those days are long gone. We don't need to open a dog's chest and watch her heart beat to understand the circulatory system. Questions about human biology that are being researched through animal experimentation today aren't being accurately answered.
This lack of clear benefit has resulted in scientists calling attention to what is sometimes referred to as the "translation problem." Translating the results of experiments on animals into improved health care for humans has proved to be devilishly difficult. Senior scientists like Zerhouni are questioning the fundamental and explicit claim that what's learned from experiments on one species can be productively applied to another species.
It is becoming more commonplace for scientists to look carefully at the real results of animal experimentation and to ask whether or not human patients have benefited from the use of animals as models of human biology. In an article published in May from Independent Science News, "The Experiment Is on Us: Science of Animal Testing Thrown Into Doubt," the writers report that a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a consortium of researchers suggests that product safety testing on animals (like much of that done at Covance on dogs and monkeys) may be worthless (Seok et al. 2013). The authors address the translation problem:
"The results of these experiments challenge the longstanding scientific presumption holding that animal experiments are of direct relevance to humans. For that reason they potentially invalidate the entire body of safety information that has been built up to distinguish safe chemicals from unsafe ones. The new results arise from basic medical research, which itself rests heavily on the idea that treatments can be developed in animals and transferred to humans."
In late 2011, the National Academy of Sciences published a report on the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research and argued that most research using them or even keeping them in standard laboratory environments is unethical. Earlier this year, the NIH announced it was adopting most of the academy's recommendations and dramatically reducing its sponsorship and involvement in medical research using chimpanzees. Both groups acknowledged that chimpanzees' similarity to humans makes the standard experimental use of them ethically problematic.
This change in perspective and policy by such conservative bodies is due to the increasing recognition that many other animals share with us the capacity for both satisfaction and suffering, desire and a sense of loss. In fact, India announced just last month that dolphins are now "non-human persons" in the eyes of the law and has forbid the use of any cetaceans for entertainment purposes.
The change in NIH policy on chimpanzees brings the U.S. closer to the Western world's norm. Prior to this change, only Gabon and the U.S. continued to allow experiments on chimpanzees. The NIH change is three-quarter's of the way to endorsement of the modern ethical consensus.
These changes in understanding should cause us to think carefully and very critically about the thousands of dogs, monkeys, and other animals being hurt and killed in Madison in the name of science.
We should have an open discussion about this matter; increasing evidence of the very poor results from using animals, the realities of what they endure, and the accelerating consensus regarding their cognitive and emotional similarity to us — of at least the members of some other species — seems to demand this of us.
The secrecy that shields the laboratories' use of animals from the public makes this hard to do. The lack of investigative journalism and reporting on the changing consensus and the many problems and accidents at the labs help to keep the matter hidden and out of sight. It's past time for full disclosure and inclusive public discussion about the things being done to animals in the name of science and product safety here in Madison and throughout the country.
Madisonian Rick Bogle works for Alliance for Animals.