Man or Mouse
Animals have been used as 'surrogate humans' by scientists for many decades in an attempt to discover more about the workings of the human body the chemicals, and other substances that can harm it, the diseases that affect it, and the drugs that can potentially cure it. The history of this endeavour is not only a litany of failures, but also of disasters that have caused enormous amounts of human as well as animal suffering.
Demonstrably, the big medical break-throughs of the 20th century have been despite, rather than because of, animal experiments. Tried and tested non-animal techniques form the foundation of medical progress, and new cutting edge technologies are accelerating it at the beginning of the 21st century.
But animal experiments continue unabated, with numbers again increasing in recent years due to the introduction of genetically-modified and transgenic animals, which allow scientists to manipulate the genetic material of animals in the hope that they can more closely resemble, for example, humans with a specific disease.
In this report we outline what genes 'do' and how genetically-modified animals are created. We discuss in some depth their uses as models for human diseases, and also briefly in the production of pharmaceutical substances and as a source of organs for human transplant. We show that all of these endeavours constitute science as poor and irrelevant to human medicine as research involving non genetically-modified animals always has been, and outline the best way forward.
The cost for humans is high, as we see transgenic research providing data that cannot be safely relied upon when applied to human medicine. Such research also diverts substantial sums of money from the human-specific methods that are providing the answers. The cost in animal lives and welfare is also great, as a result of scientists using a hugely inefficient and wasteful process to create animals who are destined to suffer from birth.
The use of animals in biomedical research, whether genetically modified or not, is a big an exercise in futility as it always has been. A bad model is a bad model, no matter what is done to improve it. No amount of genetic manipulation can make an animal 'human' enough to provide data that is relevant, predictive, reliable and safe enough to apply to humans.
Furthermore, the creation of genetically modified animals raises ethical and welfare questions more critical than ever before. These two considerations mean that any benefit that could ever stem from such research could never justify the means, or the human cost in terms of the harmful consequences of misleading animal data. Animal Aid therefore remains committed to the abolition of all animal research, and to promoting more humane medical research.
Why use animals in scientific research?
Animal experimentation as we know it has been going on for well over a century but, has proceeded with particular fervour over the last 40-50 years. Many millions of animals of many different species have been used in scientific and medical research in an attempt to elucidate biological processes and the causes and progress of human disease, to gauge the potential hazards of chemicals and foodstuffs, for example, and to determine the safety and efficacy of proposed new drugs. In short, animals have been used as 'surrogate humans' in the hope that information gleaned from experiments involving them would be applicable to human beings, and thus lead to a safer and more pleasant world - a world in which we would be shielded from exposure to harmful substances, and where any human illness would be merely transient while myriad cures took their effects.
It is easy to see how, decades ago when cell biology and genetics were in their infancy and the structure and function of DNA was a mystery animal experiments seemed like a, very good idea to scientists struggling to understand and cure disease. After all, there are so many similarities between all mammalian species, including us: we all suckle our young; our hearts and lungs do the same job, etc. etc. However it quickly, became apparent that, despite superficial similarities, there existed profound differences between species. Even when scientists couldn't know the nature of them, such differences were evident because they manifested themselves in the results of their experiments. In its early days, for example, penicillin appeared to be ineffective in rabbits, and it is toxic to guinea pigs.
How many animals are used?
While animal experiments persisted, the numbers of animals used and procedures performed levelled off in the early to mid 1970s, before declining steeply over the next ten years (Figure 1). This coincided with the advent of alternative and groundbreaking new scientific methods including DNA-oriented and other 'test-tube' (in vitro) technologies, and arguably with the tacit admission that the animal model had been a failure. Optimistic predictions for a brighter future for research and the millions of people standing to benefit were premature, however. Since the late 1980s, despite the number of 'normal' animals used in research continuing to decrease, the overall trend has been reversed as scientists have rushed to work with genetically modified (GM) or 'transgenic' animals.
In 2003, the last year for which detailed figures are currently available, further increases in animal use were seen. This included an 8% rise in the use of transgenic animals, representing 27% of the total number of procedures performed (Figure 2). At present, approximately 95% of these animals are mice. Without doubt, this figure will have increased considerably in the last two years; approximately 100 million mice were used in GM experiments in the US alone in 2004.
We are now, however in a privileged position, where we can analyse the data that has been produced, and examine the contribution that animal-based research has made to human medicine. We must ask, given the claims of those who espouse it, why was animal research in serious decline for a decade if it had been so effective in translating laboratory research to cures for disease? If this research methodology had an impressive track record and had been fundamentally and crucially involved in medical progress, or even if it had shown some future promise, why had it been abandoned so dramatically? Application of 'The 3 Rs' (Refining, Reducing and Replacing animal experiments) cannot claim to be significantly responsible for this.
Arguably the subsequent rise in the use of, genetically modified animals after this slump was an attempt by researchers to 'fix' their failed animal models, and to make them resemble more closely the human condition. In this report we examine the current state of research involving these GM animals, cite some important examples, and discuss the problems inherent in this field and the consequences for human health and animal welfare.