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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Animal testing necessary in medical research

    There are a lot of hot-button questions when it comes to the ethics of scientific research, but the perennial issue of animal testing seems to incite fever-pitched anger on both side of the debate. Animal testing, though controversial, is an important and necessary tool in modern medical research.

    It is important to define what is meant by medical research. This includes the development and testing of medical devices, procedures and drugs. It does not include the use of animal subjects for testing cosmetic or consumer products. This column will not defend or support such forms of animal testing.

    Medical research on animal subjects has enabled many of the most important advances in modern medicine, from the therapeutic use of penicillin (which was first tested in mice) to organ transplantation. In fact, if you or someone you know has ever been seriously ill, odds are high that your treatment was developed or tested in animals.

    The development of heart transplantation relied on experimentation using dogs. This allowed scientists to identify obstacles to successful transplantation, such as decay of the donated organ and rejection by the host. Animal experimentation allowed scientists to develop techniques to overcome these obstacles without directly experimenting on human patients.

    For developing complex procedures, devices or drug molecules, there is simply no substitute for animal research. Very simple techniques can (and should) be tested using alternate means; however, many experimental therapies are too complex to be accurately tested by tissue cultures, computer simulations and the like. An HIV drug, for instance, cannot be tested without an animal model. Scientists can’t grow a culture of the immune system in a petri dish, so the only realistic option is to test the drug molecule in an animal model. Without animal testing, physicians would have to cross their fingers and hope that new innovations don’t carry unforeseen side effects.

    In fact, there have been severe consequences when medical products have been brought to market without adequate pre-market testing. One famous case involved the firm Vitek, which exploited a loophole in FDA regulations to bring a synthetic jaw implant to market without adequate testing. Soon after its introduction in 1983, the FDA began receiving reports that Vitek’s implant was fragmenting in patients’ jaws, triggering a chemical reaction that literally eroded away their jawbones.

    A 1984 study of Vitek implants in dogs found that the implants disintegrated in the canine test subjects and lead to jaw erosion akin to that seen in human patients. If the FDA had required Vitek to perform this animal study before marketing its product, the shoddy implants would never have reached patients. Instead, tens of thousands of people received Vitek’s hazardous product, unaware of its critical design flaws.

    Animal testing

    Medical research on animal subjects has enabled many of the most important advances in modern medicine, from the therapeutic use of penicillin (which was first tested in mice) to organ transplantation. In fact, if you or someone you know has ever been seriously ill, odds are high that your treatment was developed or tested in animals.

    is a necessary practice in the world of medical research, allowing scientists to develop life-saving interventions and to spot catastrophic problems before new techniques or products make their way to actual patients.

    However, this does not mean that we should whitewash the practice, or deny that there are serious ethical issues involved. Animal testing is not a pretty or pleasant process. It causes pain and suffering to animal subjects, and legitimate cases of abuse have been uncovered by animal rights groups. Consequently, the practice should be tightly regulated, and alternative methods should be employed whenever possible.

    As one of the top research institutions in the nation, the UA features wide use of animal models in research. As mandated by federal law, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee supervises all research done here with animal subjects. Strict rules govern the treatment of laboratory animals and the training of staff, and all animal facilities are inspected at least twice a year by the IACUC.

    UA faculty are currently involved in many worthy projects that rely on animal testing, including development of cancer therapies, AIDS drugs and novel surgical techniques. Furthermore, there are also researchers working on alternative testing methods that can substitute for animal subjects.

    Eventually, scientists may develop enough sophistication in biology, math and computer science to entirely replace animal subjects with computer models. However, such an advance is unlikely for many, many more decades. Until then, we have only three alternatives: continue animal testing, perform direct medical experimentation on humans instead or shut down vast swaths of medical research.

    There are obvious ethical problems with performing basic medical research on humans – think of Josef Mengele’s experiments in Auschwitz, or the infamous Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis in black men. It is equally inadvisable (not to mention unrealistic) to shut down medical progress altogether. Medical advances don’t materialize out of the clear blue sky. Until scientists develop sufficiently sophisticated alternatives, animal testing will continue to be a necessary practice in medical research.

    Lauren Myers is a sophomore majoring in math and microbiology. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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