Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Loaded Topic

I have the world’s most adorable little doggie at home, and I’m totally crazy about him. I am on my university’s IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee), which I’m sure I’ll rant more about later. I use animals in my research. If I could eliminate the use of animals in research, I would.

In all likelihood, animal research is going to come up pretty frequently here, given my involvement. It’s a complicated issue, and easier not to engage, but it is ethically important for scientists to know what they think and continually evaluate to ensure they’re following best ethical practices.

I know that some extremist animal rights groups think that animal research can and should be stopped short, right this minute. Unfortunately, their arguments are pretty flawed.

Argument 1:

One big argument is that animal research hasn’t discovered anything beneficial to humans, or that all these things could have been discovered another way. This is simply untrue. Many important breakthroughs in disease treatment have been made in animal models. Farm animals, pets and endangered animals are also beneficiaries of animal research. Just Google it.

Argument 2:

Another major argument is that animals are not good models for humans and consequently research done in animals will have little relevance to human disease. Some such groups advocate for using cell culture or computer models only, instead of animals models. There’s a reason all these things are called models: they only approximate the human situation in key respects.

I’m pretty sure there isn’t a scientist alive who wouldn’t rather use a cell or a computer instead of an animal. Animals are expensive, require constant care, enormous amounts of paperwork, and specialized training. But sometimes they’re just better than a computer or a cell. The problem with creating a cell-culture or computer model is that you can only recapitulate the aspects of your system that you completely understand. But the whole problem is that we don’t completely understand most tissues or disease processes. So if you make a computer model that tells you everything we know about liver cancer, you won’t be able to cure liver cancer. The good thing about an animal model is that it’s a real tissue, that will act like a real tissue does, even in the ways we don’t understand. Unfortunately, it is true that animal systems aren’t exactly like human ones. This can sometimes be optimized by choosing the right animal, or creating a transgenic animal to better mimic key features of the human system, but even so, it isn’t perfect. That’s why it’s a model. The best science utilizes multiple modeling systems to eventually develop hypotheses that can safely be tested in humans.

Argument 3:

The hardest argument to answer, though, is the ethical/moral argument. Is it “species-ist” to treat a living thing from another species in ways that would be unacceptable to treat humans? Research makes it clear that vertebrate animals have experiences analogous to human pain, fear, pleasure and other emotional states. Rights advocates claim that these emotional and cognitive faculties make animal eligible for membership in the moral community with equal or near-equal rights to humans. This argument can’t be answered with facts or a utilitarian argument, it is about what an individual believes about the rights of non-human species. Even among anti-species-ist advocates, you can find dissent about which animals deserve what rights from worms to mice to monkeys.

Where I am:

I fall on the utilitarian end of the spectrum. Though I strongly support alternatives to animal use and sticking to the 3Rs when animals are necessary, in the end I conclude that the potential benefits of animal research outweigh the harm to animal research subjects. I think this campaign sums it up for me:

I chose to serve on my university IACUC to learn more about federal regulations concerning animal research. I got much more than I bargained for as I hear from many sides: from researchers, from regulators and from rights activists about balancing animal welfare with human welfare. There are never easy answers.

Scientists often feel pressure to justify animal research in the face of extremists who bomb, poison and mail razorblades to researchers, but most scientists will confess that it’s not a black-and-white issue. Respect for life at all levels, from proteins to cells to organisms, is central to biomedical research, and engaging with animal rights issues is important for animal users as we work to preserve the welfare of animals as best we can.

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