Curiosity Killed the Dog
This special report was prompted by Animal Aid's discovery of a long-running series of terminal experiments on dogs,carried out at a leading UK medical school and funded, in large part, by one of the country's biggest charities the British Heart Foundation.
Begun 16 years ago and aimed at measuring physiological responses to experimental heart-related procedures, the Leeds Medical School-based project seemed to Animal Aid to be both repugnant (it has involved opening the chests of anaesthetised dogs, cutting their spinal cords, draining and recirculating theirblood, and cutting nerves to the brain, gut and diaphragm) and without scientific merit.
We presented a dossier of the team's work to heart specialist and medical researcher, Dr. John J. Pippin, and asked for his written assessment as to the merits of the work, in terms of human medicine.
Dr Pippin's response was scathing. In fact, he has called for those involved to have their Home Office licences revoked. It is a call that Animal Aid endorses.
In his critique to the Home Office, Dr Pippin declared: 'This work provides an exceptional example of a common practice: the manipulation of animal models for convenience and usefulness, regardless of the effects upon the validity of results obtained. This is not uncommon among those researchers who propose and perform studies to satisfy their scientific curiosity and sustain their careers, without sufficient regard for potential applications to humans.
'Very evident in this collection of papers is the characteristic use of one study to justify the next. In many cases, unanswered (usually unforeseen) questions arising from one study produced the rationale for a later study. In several instances, the team invokes conflicting or erroneous results from previous studies (sometimes their own) to justify another study.'
The larger scandal disfiguring this long-running research project has been the willingness of the Home Office regulators to sanction an enterprise that, by any objective assessment, fails to demonstrate obvious benefits for human medicine. The same charge of lack of due diligence can be levelled at the British Heart Foundation, a major research charity that, for many years, has directed publicly donated money at the Leeds team.
The team's activities are categorised, under the official Home Office formulation, as 'basic' or 'fundamental' research. These are catch-all terms that may or may not promise tangible benefits for human or even animal medicine. The regulators are content for the research to be speculative. It need only carry the suggestion that at some future, unspecified date something concretely beneficial might emerge.
Blue skies research is all very well, many people would agree, where public money is not involved and where the research materials are inanimate. But the Leeds team have been working at a publicly funded institution, with additional funds coming from a charity Furthermore, the object of their attention has been beagle dogs.
While the Leeds Medical School project is a particularly shocking example of basic research using live animals, this report demonstrates that there is a good deal that is fundamentally problematic about this whole area of work.
John J Pippin MD graduated from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1980 and subsequently specialised in nuclear cardiology. Among his academic appointments are faculty positions at Harvard Medical School and the Medical College of Virginia. In addition to his numerous scientific publications, he is the recipient of several prestigious awards for clinical and research excellence. In February 2005, he presented evidence at a US Food and Drug Administration hearing on the misleading results of animal tests with respect to the anti-inflammatory drug, Vioxx.
Basic Research (aka 'Fundamental Research') involves experiments whose primary purpose is an increase in the fund of knowledge available in a particular field of scientific endeavour. Typically, questions are posed and answers sought by means of animal experiments. Such studies, according to a Home Office definition, may be aimed solely at an increase in knowledge, an application of existing knowledge beyond the scope of the investigator, or else, at providing a practical solution to an existing medical or veterinary problem.
In reality, claims of relevance to human medicine will always be made by those involved in basic research. This is to give weight to their application for funding and for a Home Office licence.
Basic research is normally subdivided into toxicological and non-toxicological procedures. The latter (non-toxicity tests) may include efficacy studies (where a procedure is designed with the aim of achieving a particular desired effect), metabolism (bodily function), nutritional evaluation (food studies), etc. In addition, basic studies may be categorised according to the body system in question, e.g. respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous, digestive, reproductive.
Legislation covering basic research
All animal experiments are 'regulated' by the Home Office, under the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act.
While current law makes it difficult to avoid animal testing during the safety evaluation phase of new pharmaceutical products, scientists conducting basic research have no legal requirement to use animals. It is left to the individual scientist to judge what is worth studying, and whether or not to use animals. In order to perform an animal experiment (referred to as a 'procedure'), a researcher must obtain a personal, as well as a project, licence. The proposed research programme will be scrutinised by a professional body (the Home Office Inspectorate), 'composed of medical and veterinary graduates with higher professional and academic qualifications and experience of clinical practice and quality research' (1).