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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Nature debates animal experimentation
Nature this week has a special topic "Animal Research: A matter of life and death", consisting of four editorials on the topic: Animal Research: Grey Matters by Emma Marris, Animal Research: Caught in the middle by Kerri Smith is an interesting interview with a research veterinary surgeon, Animal Research: Primates in the frame by David Cyranoski demonstrates how we are already at the limit in terms of ethics boards and additional requirements will start to seriously hamper research, and Animal Research: Mighty Mouse by Jane Qui discusses the power of transgenic and knock out mice for answering questions about gene function. They also performed polling of researchers on the topic which not surprisingly found:

When asked to rate how necessary animal research was for progressing biomedical science on a scale of 1 (not at all necessary) to 4 (essential), three quarters of all respondents, including those who do not work with animals themselves, said it was essential. About a fifth rated it as 3, and only a tiny minority (about 1%) thought it unnecessary.

Many noted that a main difficulty in discussing animal research is in dealing with the fact that some animal models aren't perfect. "We have not addressed legitimate issues that animal rights groups have raised, ...a mouse is not a human and the question to be tested will not be fully answered," said one neuroscientist, who works on animals. "We need to admit this but point out that it is more complex than that."

It should be noted that even researchers that don't "directly" work with animals are still probably using a great number of animal products, like serum to feed cells, proteins and enzymes purified from animals, antibodies raised in various animals etc.

I'd like to devote some attention to the first article, by Marris, which is an overview of the disparate attitudes scientists have towards their lab animals. Some of the responses are quite irritating coming from scientists. For instance:

Tom Burbacher runs an infant primate lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, which models the cognitive effects of prenatal exposures to environmental contaminants in macaques. He talks publicly about his work, but does not defend the entire enterprise of animal research, believing it is a waste of time to defend such a large, abstract concept. He adds that he feels that his work, which is clearly linked to human health, is easier to explain than some blue-sky research, such as mapping the brain or describing how vision works. "There is a lot of basic research going on that is harder to talk about," he says.

And why should basic research be harder to talk about? Why is it that basic research gets less respect for use of animals than studies that are supposedly more applicable to human health? Where do they think that the more bench to bedside studies come from? The ether? The fact is all levels of research can justifiably use animals, if you eliminate basic research, you don't magically keep the more clinically-oriented stuff, the clinical research is more often than not critically dependent on results from basic studies.

I much preferred this philosophy:

Chris Harvey-Clark, director of the Animal Care Centre at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, has even greater day-to-day contact with animals, working with research subjects from sea lions and hummingbirds to transgenic mice. Harvey-Clark, like many in similar positions, was once a private-practice veterinarian, and remains a confirmed animal-lover, saying he often feels emotionally closer to his charges at the centre than to his old clients' pets. In the face of their inevitable deaths, Harvey-Clark must work to retain his humanity and empathy. "How do you keep caring for the animals without being scorched by the fact that you are using them up?" he asks.

His answer lies in the fact that suffering and death have long characterized the relationship between humankind and the animal kingdom — from animal predators that prey on humans, to the slaughter of wild and farmed animals by humans for food. As Harvey-Clark puts it, "without a farm background, it is hard to understand that you can both care for things and also understand that they are going to wind up being food, or data".

This I think is a far more mature point of view about the nature of things, not just in science but in how the world works. I often am amused, for instance, that vegetarians think they somehow magically avoid deaths of animals by avoiding meat and buying organic. Do they think that when a farmer puts up an "organic vegetable" sign the animals and pests just stop eating them? Here's a secret, organic farming uses pesticides too (just a limited set that ironically includes inorganic chemicals like sulfur), the farmers will still shoot animals that eat the crops, and they use animal intensive pest control measures like the dumping of millions of freeze-dried ladybugs on crops to eat larvae and kill aphids. Beyond diet, it's impossible to avoid causing death of animals from activities as disparate as building a house, to driving your car (bugs and squirrels don't count?), to cleaning, to mowing your lawn, to public health measures like the genocidal elimination of malarial mosquitoes and screw worm. Humans are walking death machines, and that's ok, that's why we've been so successful as a species. The various ways people hide from themselves the fact that we exist due to our superior killing tactics is kind of amusing, and I believe it reflects that complete absence of interaction with nature that we experience as privileged North Americans. Somehow, now that all our predators have been killed, malaria and screw-worm eliminated, our environment is tightly controlled, sanitation is excellent etc., we've come to view nature as our friend, or we believe that we can co-exist peacefully. She's not our friend, she's a bitch and she'll kill us if we let her (anyone seen Grizzly Man?). Nature is cold and indifferent to our survival.

Finally though, Marris ends with one of those annoying appeals to the middle:

The old adage may truly fit here: there are as many views about animal research as there are thoughtful people. But as long as the debate is played out as a ping-pong game between hard-core activists and hard-core defenders, anyone in the middle who stands up to be heard risks getting hit.

Sorry, but the second you start giving ground it's just going to be more and more difficult to get the science done. Especially since I believe we've ceded as much ground as we can before the research is hampered. We already reduce, minimize and look for alternatives when possible, it's just that for a lot of these things there are no alternatives. Scientists (about 80% of them based on the polling here) would prefer not to use animals if alternatives existed, there simply aren't viable alternatives.

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