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The Use of Animals in Biomedical Research

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issue brief

The Use of Animals in Biomedical Research

May 1, 1999
Health PolicyOther

Remarks of Frederick K. Goodwin, MD

Frederick K. Goodwin, MD, a nationally renowned psychopharmacologist is director of The Center on Neuroscience, Medical Progress & Society at George Washington University.  He is the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health.  The following remarks were delivered by Dr. Goodwin at a recent Manhattan Institute forum.

The radical animal rights movement has become an increasingly powerful force that threatens the continued discovery and development of new treatments and prevention strategies for a variety of illnesses.  The effort to end biomedical research with animals is based on a profound misunderstanding of how science really works and the gains we have achieved.  Fundamentally it represents a philosophical position reflecting a profound moral confusion that equates our use of animals with the enslavement of human beings, and treats them as moral agents on a par with people.

An important truth about the history of medicine is that most major discoveries have come about by accident, often when a scientist has his sights trained on an entirely different topic of research. Earlier in my career I had the good fortune to be the first researcher to report on the antidepressant effects of lithium in a controlled study. But the story behind the initial discovery that lithium, an elemental substance on the periodic table, might have therapeutic benefits illustrates the serendipitous way medical advancement occurs.

An Australian psychiatrist named John Cade was interested in understanding what might be wrong in the brains of patients with manic depressive illness. Because he was evaluating nitrogen metabolism, he wanted to see if giving them a substance called urea might help.  Testing his hypothesis on guinea pigs, he used a salt form of urea which happened to contain lithium, in order to make a soluble solution, and gave it to the animals. What happened, of course, was that the guinea pigs became unexpectedly calm. Further experimentation revealed it wasn’t the urea producing the effect, but the lithium, which came as a complete surprise to Cade and everyone else.  He confirmed his findings by taking lithium himself and giving it to human patients, who experienced similar results. This single discovery has entirely revolutionized the treatment of manic depressive illness, improving the lives of many people and saving billions of dollars along the way.

But there was no way anyone could have predicted what the outcome of this experiment would be in advance. And there was no way to list the health benefits that would come from using those guinea pigs before the experiment was done. It would have been like asking for an answer before the question was even clear. If you know the answer ahead of time, you’re not really doing research.

Many years ago, well before the animal rights controversy arose, the National Institutes of Health sponsored a study by Julius H. Comroe, Jr. and R. D. Dripps, designed to examine whether the government’s funding of basic biomedical research was a good investment. As part of the study, the authors surveyed practicing cardiologists to determine what the group regarded as the ten leading medical advances of their lifetimes—that is, the ten developments most helpful to their patients. Comroe and Dripps then traced the scientific ancestry of each of these discoveries and found that, in every case, animal research was a critical component. And four out of the ten actually originated from work in a different, seemingly unrelated field of research. So it’s unreasonable to expect a scientist doing interesting work to know where his efforts may lead. We can evaluate whether an experiment is likely to give clear answers based on whether it is well designed, but we can’t say what those answers are going to be.

And I would challenge anyone to produce a working biomedical scientist who would dispute the importance of using laboratory animals. Only about 22 percent of the work being done in biomedicine involves animals, more than 90 percent being rats and mice.  But anyone working in the field will tell you that it’s indispensable. You can’t develop an understanding of a chemical or a gene and then try and determine its role in a  complex human organism with billions of cells and dozens of organs without knowing how it works in the complex biological systems of animals. The animal model allows a scientist to understand what’s happening at a level of detail that could not especially be achieved in humans.

There may be no more dramatic illustration of lab animals’ importance than the work of the great kidney transplant pioneer, Dr. Thomas E. Starzl. When asked why he used dogs in his work, Starzl noted that in his first series of operations he transplanted kidneys in a number of subjects and the majority died. After figuring out what had allowed a few to survive, he revised his techniques, operated on a similar group of subjects, and a majority survived. In his third group only one or two died and in his fourth group all survived. The point, he added, was that the first three groups were made up of dogs, while the fourth group consisted of human babies. If he had started on humans, he would have been responsible for 15 deaths. Yet there are animal rights activists who believe that is the choice we should make.

To understand what the animal rights movement is all about, it’s essential to distinguish between it and animal welfare organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and local humane societies, which have a time-honored place in our culture.  Typically these organizations try to reduce animal cruelty, take care of stray animals, teach good animal care, run neutering programs and build animal shelters, thereby fulfilling our traditional moral responsibility as stewards of animals, who are not in a position to make decisions or care for themselves. Incidentally, my wife and I have two dogs and a cat, and have been supporters of our local humane society. Our pets come from their shelters.

The animal rights organizations, however, started with a very different philosophy, summed up by the grandfather of the movement, Professor Peter Singer.  Singer has argued that all sentient creatures, all those capable of feeling, have the same fundamental rights. Anyone who assigns special rights to humans is guilty of “speciesism,” a prejudice morally equivalent to racism and sexism. Ingrid Newkirk, a leader of the American animal  rights movement, has written that “a rat is a pig, is a dog, is a boy.”  She has also compared six million Holocaust victims to six  billion chickens killed. She also asserts that pet ownership is slavery. Chris Rose, who heads the organization In Defense of Animals, says if the death of one rat would cure all disease, it still wouldn’t be right, because we are all equal.

Ironically, science itself may have indirectly played a role in creating an intellectual climate in which this kind of thinking is possible. Many people interpreted modern science to say that nothing exists except what we can measure empirically, and that if all truth depends on science, moral values are without foundation. This has contributed to a climate of moral, cultural and intellectual relativism, a perspective that infuses postmodern thought, so dominant in our most prestigious universities. But science itself absolutely depends on the concept that there is such a thing as truth and that there are systematic ways to distinguish truth from falsity. 

To be certain, other factors have contributed to the climate of moral confusion surrounding the use of animals in research, including the general erosion of trust in our institutions brought about by events like Vietnam and Watergate. We’re also victims of our own health care successes. We have seen such a decline in infectious diseases that the baby boomers and subsequent generations don’t even remember polio, and have no sense of how amazing it was when antibiotics were first developed. Now antibiotics are just something you take when you have a cold. 

Another factor is that our country has experienced a horrible decline in scientific literacy.  We used to have the highest scientific literacy rate in the developed world.  Now we’re dead last, 14th out of 14. As a result, most people, especially young people, don’t understand what the scientific method is really about.

And these days most people don’t spend much time around animals other than house pets.  Immediately after World War II, 44 percent of our population lived on farms; now it’s around four percent.  So what do kids know about animals, other than what they see in animated movies? And the animal rights movement tries very hard to attract young people.  A recent television documentary on animal life generated a lot of protest just because it showed the reality of jungle life, namely that every animal is some other animal’s dinner.

Interestingly, animal rights activists made a decision early on to make scientific researchers their targets of protest rather than farmers, despite the fact that more than 99 percent of the animals used by humans are for food, while a fraction of one percent are used in research.  Peter Singer said that decision was made because farmers are organized and politically powerful, and they also live out in rural areas, which makes them hard to get to. On the other hand, scientists are not politically organized, live in urban areas, and are not very good at defending themselves because they often have trouble explaining their work in layman’s terms.

Scientists have indeed proved easy targets, partially because we made a very bad tactical error in the beginning. In an effort to meet the activists halfway, the research community came up with what were called “The Three Rs.”  We were going to reduce the number of animals used, refine our techniques, andreplace animals whenever possible. Subsequently we have had to relearn the old lesson that it is a losing game to compromise with a radical group that has an entirely different way of seeing the world.

For that reason, focusing on the Three Rs without identifying the underlying philosophy of animal rights proved a public relations disaster.  Our commitment to replacing animals suggested that we thought we might be doing something morally wrong. Our basic position should have been that human beings have a right to use animals for their purposes, but we also have responsibility to use them humanely.  The more we emphasized the Three Rs, the stronger the movement became, and the radical activists were able to raise more and more money.

Even with respect to fur, the fundamental issues are similar. People may choose not to buy or wear fur, and that’s fine with me. But philosophically, once you take the position that it’s unethical to humanely use animals for one particular purpose, then you’re on a slippery slope about everything else. If you compromise your philosophical premise, you have already lost the battle.

Animal rights organizations have advanced several core arguments, which I want to rebut:

  • First, they assert animal research is essentially cruel. This argument misses the point that experimenters usually want to disturb the animal as little as possible in order to study its natural response to whatever is being tested. An estimated five percent of research employs procedures causing distress or pain. The reason is that the object of these studies is distress or pain. This kind of experimentation has allowed us to develop effective painkillers, for example. Moreover, animal research has become one of the most regulated forms of human endeavor.
  • Second, activists say animal experiments are duplicative. The reality is that only about one out of four grant requests currently receives funding, a highly competitive situation that means that duplicative research is very unlikely to get funded. But research does have to be replicated before the results are accepted. And advancement usually comes with a series of small discoveries, all elaborating on or overlapping one another. When activists talk about duplication, they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how science progresses.
  • Third, they say we should urge people to adopt measures such as an altered diet or increased exercise to prevent major illness, so that we wouldn’t need so many new treatments.  This misses the fact that much of what we have discovered about preventive measures is itself the result of animal research. You can’t get most cancers to grow in a test tube; you need whole animal studies.
  • I’m amused most by the fourth argument, that we should use alternatives like computer simulations.  I wonder where they think the data comes from that is then entered in computers?  We have to use real physiological data to feed our machines. One activist I know keeps arguing we should use pet scans, which can provide an image of how a living human organ is functioning, as a way of avoiding the use of animals. He ignores the fact that it took Lou Sokoloff in my program at the National Institute of Mental Health eight years of animal research to develop the method upon which the pet scan is based.

There are other arguments. Activists say animal research diverts funds from medical treatment. But we spend only 37 cents on animal studies for every $100 we spend on treatment. We could divert all our research funds and it would have no impact on treating sick people. They also say pets are at risk.  But more than 90 percent of the animals used are rodents, which most of us don’t regard as pets. I should add that over 13 million cats and dogs are killed in shelters every year. One reason is that animal rights organizations have drained much of the funding from animal welfare organizations, so they can’t run adoption or neutering programs the way they once did. Incidentally, that comes to about 7,000 animals killed in shelters for every one killed in research.

Despite the weakness of their arguments, the animal rights movement has already cost us a lot. Nothing destroys creativity like fear, and the movement has instilled a sense of fear that permeates the research community. The people who work with animals are now often segregated in high security buildings like bunkers, separated from their colleagues. There has been an effective cut in biomedical research budgets resulting from the costs of increased security and compliance with new regulations. The public needs to understand what’s at stake in this controversy before the costs mount higher.

Dr. Goodwin's Manhattan Institute forum was underwritten by the Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Fund.  The Klingenstein Fund’s interest in the topic of animal-based biomedical research has grown out of its long support of research in the field of neuroscience. Please contact the Klingenstein Fund at (212) 492-6181 if you would like to learn more about the Fund’s work.