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Why I Take Animal-Tested Drugs

Posted: 03/04/09 01:51 PM ET

One of my doctors has told me to get my affairs in order, which is why I'm writing this column. I want to explain why someone who takes so many animal-tested drugs is opposed to animal research.

I have full-blown leukemia and the chemotherapy I'm taking doesn't seem to be working all that well. And even if it does kick into high gear soon, it's not a cure, only a brief delay of the disease's progression. One way or another, my odds aren't good.

Still, I keep popping pills each morning and night, sitting for many hours each week with an IV in my arm, dealing with all the side-effects of treatment, hoping for a miracle. Some people may call me a hypocrite -- to take advantage of the benefits of animal research. Let me explain.

The truth is that I don't feel I've ultimately benefited from our healthcare system, despite some truly exceptional care and many amazingly compassionate practitioners. Just the opposite.

I first developed myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) in 2004 from the chemo I was prescribed for breast cancer. In 2006, I underwent a stem cell transplant, which gave me two years of remission (albeit with many horrible side effects). This past July, I relapsed -- this time with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). My prognosis is grim.

Throughout the past six years, I have felt terribly guilty about the drugs and procedures I've undergone because I know that so many animals have suffered in their development. I know about these conditions because of my former job -- working for a nonprofit that promotes alternatives to animal research. I know about the conditions from talking with former animal researchers and others who have witnessed the cruelty. In fact, one man I know from an Internet support group remembers hearing lab dogs yelping in pain at the hospital where we both had our transplants.

The truth -- mostly hidden from public view -- is that animal research is horribly cruel. Despite what the research community claims, federal regulations are extremely weak and poorly enforced, and some species -- mice, for example -- are completely excluded from any protection. Many investigations have shown just how bad conditions are.

But as someone who recently signed up for hospice, I have another major problem with animal research. I wonder if science would have found a cure for my leukemia by now if they weren't sidetracked by misleading animal tests. I wonder if the chemo that I took for breast cancer would have been safer it hadn't been tested in species that are so unlike our own.

The truth is that using animals to develop and test drugs is a system that doesn't work very well. It's an old paradigm, one that is fortunately beginning to change, however slowly. A growing number of scientists are developing some exciting (and more effective) non-animal alternatives. These changes have been inspired partly by concern over animal cruelty but also because animal research and testing have so often failed us. Some government agencies are even starting to call for more alternatives.

More than 90 percent of all new drugs which proved effective in animals end up not working for humans. It's because animals -- however similar they are to us -- have different physiological systems. What works in a mouse usually doesn't work in a human.

History is filled with stories of drugs that didn't work in animals -- Aspirin, for example -- that ended up working in humans. And the obituary pages are filled with stories of people who died from drugs that looked safe in animals. The painkiller Vioxx, for example, tested safe in mice and five other species but ended up killing many thousands of Americans.

If you wonder how I can justify taking the drugs, the truth is that like all living beings ("lab animals" included) I desperately want to live. And because of government regulations, I don't have a choice.

The current drug approval system doesn't yet acknowledge the superiority of human-focused, nonanimal research methods (such as microdosing) and all pharmaceutical companies must use animals to get their drugs approved. Hopefully, this situation will soon change. A coalition of animal protection groups and physicians has petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to accept the results of alternative tests, when available.

If the chemo drugs I'm trying now don't work, I do have one last option. I could try a Phase One trial. That's when a drug looks promising in animals and is first tested in humans. My doctor started to tell me why so many participants die in Phase One trials -- but it turned out I already knew the answer. Drugs that work in animals, he explained, usually don't work in humans.