12/07/2012 12:37 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2013

Don't Have the Wool Pulled Over Your Eyes

I suspect that most people don't realize how much they owe their well-being, even their lives, to research using experimental animals. "Animal rights" organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States, note -- as their stated goal -- the elimination of all such research. Some will falsely tell you that no effective treatments for human disease come from animal research, and that most animals used in research are not protected under the law. Considering their stated purpose, accepting such statements at face value would be equivalent to buying a used car based on a sales spiel without "looking under the hood."

In contrast to claims that nothing medically beneficial has arisen from research using animals, the U.S. Public Health Service stated in 1994, "Virtually every medical achievement of the last century has depended directly or indirectly on research with animals." Furthermore, consider that over the past 40 years only one Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine did not depend on animal research for the fundamental discoveries that led to the prize. The knowledge gained as a result of discoveries of Nobel Prize caliber paved the way for yet more discoveries, and in turn, to treatments and cures. A quick look at the list of Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine will give you an idea not only of the vital role played by animals in biomedical research, but also the impact that research has had on humankind. Even when a fundamental, groundbreaking discovery is made, the important contributions of animals to that research do not end with the discovery and are not limited to one disease-related application. Instead, the first discovery often spins off others with additional clinical applications.

It is true that we must move cautiously from findings in animals to application of those findings in humans. In fact, that need is recognized in regulations mandating that more than one non-human animal species be used to test new medications before they are used in humans. Sometimes those who seek to outlaw use of animals in research argue that testing new treatments should be done on humans, not animals. Really! Are they ready to volunteer? Even if they were, or even if some were coerced to do so (say prisoners or terminally ill patients), would we really want to move our society in that direction? Should the value placed on a sentient or previously sentient human be rank-ordered by criteria set by another person so that those of lower rank can undergo unproven treatments? Let's take a pass on any suggestion for that type of society.

Do not think that the only value coming from studies utilizing animals is development of cures or testing of potential cures. In fact, studying living creatures gives the scientist an opportunity to learn how living systems work. The new knowledge often expands our understanding of human physiology. There are many layers of needed understanding. Those layers range from what is known as the "systems level," where the scientist explores whole body systems and how they work in an integrated manner, to cellular and chemical levels of discovery. What has been learned in experimental animals, be they rats, cats, dogs, or other species, has been directly transferable to our understanding of human physiology and to treatment of numerous diseases. Transfer of knowledge to humans is possible because, as living beings have evolved, functions that best adapted those creatures to their environment persisted and generally evolved to better function.

It is important to realize that studies in animals are not just done for, and do not just lead to, treatments in humans. Indeed, treatments for other animals also arise from such studies. Consider, for example, that paralyzed dogs have regained their ability to walk as a result of research conducted in rodents and dogs. The implications of that work for humans are profound, but clearly they are profound for animals with spinal injuries as well. Keep that in mind when you hear that treatments should not be tested on animals. Realize that even if all testing were done in humans, our pets would lose the benefit of some medications whose usefulness was not found in humans. Furthermore, animals treated with drugs only tested in humans could die from side effects not seen in human test subjects. For example, although aspirin is generally safe for people, your cat's metabolism differs from your own. Unable to clear the body of aspirin, your cat could very well die from a drug as benign as aspirin if you gave it that drug.

Studies in animals also aid in assessing whether new treatments may be safe in humans. Is the knowledge of safety itself transferable without question across species? At times it may not be, but finding that results cannot be transferred to humans often leads to the question "Why,' which in turn can lead to better understanding how the human body works. We absolutely need to do safety testing in animals, but we must pay attention to results of such studies. The need for that caution is emphasized by a case in the 1950s and 1960s with thalidomide, a drug that was used to treat nausea during pregnancy, but was found to produce terrible deformities of the limbs (phocomelia) in babies born to women taking the drug. Those who would have you believe that animal research is invalid and point to the failure of animal research to detect phocomelia do not emphasize that studies in experimental animals did demonstrate the risk of phocomelia -- once those studies were done. The drug was used in pregnant women before those studies were done in pregnant experimental animals. When you hear cries from those who oppose use of animals in research for cessation of such safety testing, keep in mind that thalidomide was not approved by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States because that agency found that insufficient experimental animal testing had been done to justify approval of the drug. Women in the U. S. were affected when they got the drug from sources outside the U. S. To claim that nothing was learned from animal studies in this case is revisionist history at best.

Do animals used in research deserve protection? Yes, and they get it. Our government sets strict standards for research animal care. When a scientist applies for funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the application must specify very clearly why animals must be used, why a replacement for animals cannot be used in their place, how care of the animals will reduce or eliminate any pain or distress that the animal might experience as a result of the studies, how the number of animals to be used has been determined, and that the study is not a repeat of something that has been done and established previously. If an applicant for funding fails to answer those questions, that applicant's work will not be funded, no matter how scientifically important it might be, until proper care and use of animal subjects has been assured.

There are numerous ways by which federal laws and regulations protect animals. When you hear from those who oppose use of animals in research that 95 percent of all animals used in research do not fall under the protection of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), realize they are telling a misleading truth. It is true that most animals used in research are not covered by the AWA, which does not cover use of rats, mice and birds, and that the great majority of modern studies involve mice. However, what they don't tell you is that use of those species not covered by the AWA is protected by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals when the research is funded through the PHS. Furthermore, most research institutions and universities voluntarily have a monitoring group, the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC), regularly inspect their facilities to ensure that all use of animals complies with federal laws and regulations.

Can animals be mistreated in research labs? Yes, that can happen as it can in any situation; but as described above, strong laws and institutional policies are in place to prevent mistreatment. Now think about how some of the stories of animal "abuse" come to light. Animal rights activists have been known to observe animal research practices month after month as undercover spies just so they could make a movie to convince the public that science using animals is evil, all the while allowing animal subjects to experience what they contend might be less than optimal care. Think about it: If you were as concerned about animal welfare as I am, and as is every scientist I know, wouldn't you do everything in your power to protect animals the moment you saw them being treated in anything other than an optimally humane way? Certainly you would. If you saw a practice that needed to be corrected, wouldn't you do something as quickly as possible to see that best practices were adopted? Again, of course you would.

Doesn't it also seem incongruous that some who profess caring so much for animal life care so little for human life that they would threaten the life of scientists whose goal was to discover means to cure? That is exactly what happens all too frequently. Just last month, this time in Chile, members of the Animal Liberation Front took credit for firebombing cars of scientists attending a meeting in that country. That happened in Chile, but the threat also exists close to home and could even affect you. In California, scientists at UCLA, as well as their neighbors, have been subjected to threats and firebombs. One bomb intended for a research scientist was placed on the front porch of an unsuspecting elderly woman who escaped serious injury, again only through great luck.

Do all members of animal rights groups seek to harm scientists? Of course not! Do all members of animal rights groups harbor irrational beliefs about use of animals in research? Again, of course not! By the same token, rare cases of mistreatment of animals in research labs do not mean that scientists as a whole do not care for the welfare of their animals. Nothing could be further from the truth! Most scientists are, in fact, compassionate and eager to provide optimal care for the animals they use in research. They also know that the care of those animals is a critical variable in results of their studies. Therefore, valid interpretation of their studies depends on control of that variable.

So you decide. Does this brief overview support the idea that use of animals in research is bad? Would we be better off had the use of all animals been banned in research? If your answer to these questions is "yes" then be aware that you would have chosen a world with no treatments or cures for diseases like HIV/AIDS, heart attacks, strokes, Parkinson's disease, polio, hepatitis, diabetes, tetanus, smallpox, tuberculosis, pneumonia, rheumatic fever, and on, and on and on. That is not a world we should accept.