Humane Research: An Introduction
Vivisection is just one method of research. There are other methods available, better and more humane methods. Too often, animal experiments are portrayed by their supporters as essential to scientific understanding. In fact, they are just one small part of the picture. Ann Harriman offers an introduction to ethical research.
The three main methods of non animal scientific research are epidemiology research (the study of disease in human populations), the use of computers and in vitro research using human tissue.
Improvements in life-expectancy and identifying the main causes of our most lethal diseases and allergies such as heart disease, strokes, asthma, cancer, diabetes and Aids are the direct result of epidemiology. This is how the link between smoking and lung cancer was made, for instance, but because subsequent experiments on animals failed to 'prove' this, vital information was withheld for many years resulting in thousands of unnecessary deaths.
To quote Dr. Robert Sharpe, "the single most important aspect of medicine is the prevention of disease". This is why epidemiology is so important. Learning about the causes of disease, identifying those most at risk and taking appropriate action will save lives and create better health standards and better health care.
Over 2.5 million animals are used in Britain every year for research. The numbers worldwide run into hundreds of millions.
Computer simulations of body systems and functions have not only proved to be invaluable as teaching aids for students and medical staff, but are increasingly being used in medical research. Computer models of brain cells have now been constructed and a model of the human heart is now under development, based on a mathematical definition of a single beating heart cell. Highly complex mathematical models which can predict a human's or animal's response to a test chemical, means preliminary tests to screen toxic substances can be done with a combination of computer analysis and human tissue. Tests can be performed on human cells from the organs most likely to be affected, such as the liver, kidneys, skin and blood.
Animals are used as 'short cuts' to understanding human problems and for developing and testing new products and procedures for medical and commercial use.
In vitro research
Cell culture technology is proving to be one of the most useful and effective methods of humane research - "the experiments made possible by cell and tissue cultures are unlimited". (Prof. Pietro Croce). Cell culture technology involves the use of living tissue, human or animal, which is grown and kept alive, sometimes for long periods, in vitro (which means in the test tube). Organ culture allows numbers of cells found in the same organ to combine for more advanced research.
Not only does the practice of vivisection cause animals a great deal of pain and distress but it doesn't have any scientific basis, because every species is biologically unique.
Human tissue can be used for medical research; for the development and screening of drugs and other products; for the production of vaccines and antibodies; for diagnostic purposes and for investigating the processes of different diseases and allergies. In cancer research, for instance, human cancer cells are used to study the origin and spread of cancer and for testing new cancer treatments.
Most of the great medical discoveries were made from observing human patients during illness and after death (pathology), and studies of lifestyles and diseases of whole populations (epidemiology).
Toxicity testing of substances for drugs and other products intended for human use can and must be done on human cell and tissue cultures, because animal tests using whole animals or animal tissue, are crude and inaccurate and give misleading information. The supply of human tissue is just a question of organisation and demand.
Vivisection is just one method of research. There are other methods available, better and more humane methods.
Other methods of research include the use of micro-organisms - living things so tiny they can only be seen under the microscope. They include bacteria and yeast. The Ames Test, using Salmonella bacteria, has proved very successful at detecting cancer causing substances.
Ultimately the effects of a drug must be observed in a whole body, a whole living system, and if it is intended for human use only a human body will provide valid information. Hopeful signs for the future include the formation of a new testing company called Pharmagene who have a policy not to use animals and focus exclusively on human tissue for research; opposition by many young people which has led to the increasing use of alternatives to animals in education, and a growing number of doctors and scientists speaking out against unscientific and unethical animal research.
In many instances, of course, the 'alternative' is not to do the research at all. Many areas of research are indefensible, such as the huge numbers of animals used by drug companies to produce ever-increasing numbers of me too drugs; warfare and psychology research and product testing.
This method of research entails carefully controlled long-term studies of human volunteers and patients (with their fully informed consent) to assess drug response and disease patterns; close monitoring of patients; close monitoring of patient's lifestyle and diet; health surveys, hospital and doctor's records, x-rays, biopsies and scanning techniques. Scanning techniques are now very sophisticated and enable us to study early and advanced stages of disease in individual patients, and measure the effects of drugs and alternative therapies on the human body.
Many products intended for household, industrial and agricultural use are still tested on animals, even though the majority of the public are opposed to such tests. Companies who have a policy not to test on animals, either use ingredients known to be safe by long-term human use, or screen new products using human skin tissue to assess skin and eye irritancy, and human volunteers who can provide further information about skin irritancy or allergic reaction. A test tube technique called the Eytex test is a quick and efficient method of identifying moderate and severe eye irritants, and should replace the extremely cruel Draize Eye Irritancy Test carried out on fully conscious rabbits.