Why I, an emergency doctor, condemn medical charities for their pointless and cruel research

Posted on the 8th November 2010

As an emergency doctor, I remember smiling at a medical textbook description of the idealised Casualty department. The fantasy regime offered time for plenty of diligent study – periods that were punctuated by exciting flurries of life-saving heroics, with maximum resource deployment and crowd-pleasing skills.

Of course, it’s not like that. The emergency team does occasionally charge about as if possessed – but we also treat a huge volume of chronic disease, and the big guns like heart disease and cancer are still scything down huge swathes of the Western population. But, however it presents, our line of work is people, and the helping thereof. Logically, we unambiguously welcome programmes to ensure top class research finds remedies for both acute and chronic conditions.

It may seem odd, therefore, that I also unambiguously welcome a new initiative by the campaign group Animal Aid to criticise leading medical research charities. Charities like Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation and Parkinson’s UK – well regarded bastions of the charity fun run and the feel-good factor. The charges being levelled against them, though, are utterly serious. They are accused of subjecting animals to pointless suffering, squandering valuable resources, and engaging in a worrying secrecy about the animal research they conduct or fund.

That the animals suffer in such research is beyond question. The clinical reports detail a massive catalogue of misery. Marmosets, with parts of their brains removed, being deprived of food and water to ‘research’ Parkinson’s disease. Millions upon millions of mice ’given’ cancer by poisoning them, irradiating them, injecting them with tumours or tinkering with their genes. Dogs having their coronary arteries tied off to ‘simulate’ heart attacks – because dogs never get the fat-laden blockages that cause the disease in humans.

The vast majority of animal testing advocates claim that it’s a trade-off – we need some animals to suffer in gruesome ways so we can find a cure for (insert disease of choice). I think that mantra is probably the saddest, most tragic aspect of all. The experiments are almost always futile, and tell us nothing we did not know already or could not have discovered by other means. Neither should we think it strange when Animal Aid says that animals are poor surrogates for people. Surely it is obvious that there are significant, intractable inter-species differences. Even more worryingly, there is a wealth of evidence that animal experiments are at best, delaying medical progress, and at worst, making medical practice positively dangerous.

Take the Vioxx fiasco. Extensive tests on mice, rats, rabbits and dogs indicated that the painkiller protected the heart. Yet it went on to cause between 88,000 and 160,000 heart attacks and strokes, and was the subject of 27,000 lawsuits in the US alone. Or consider the TGN 1412 catastrophe. Six healthy human volunteers were almost killed by a drug that had previously been given in massively higher doses to monkeys, and who had experienced no serious side effects. Overall, a staggering 92% of new drugs successful in animal studies go on to fail in human clinical trials.

It is entirely false to claim that these experiments have been responsible for benchmark medical advances. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection points out that after decades of research using the ’monkey model’ of Parkinson’s disease, there is still neither a cure nor any treatment that halts the progress of the disease – or even a drug which maintains its initial efficacy in the long term.

Neither has decades of animal research helped eradicate modern-day killers like cancer and cardiovascular disease. The evidence is clear, for example, that recent decreases in cancer mortality are largely due to screening and behavioural changes. A new breed of ’wonder drugs‘, despite being developed and deployed at enormous cost, has failed to deliver. And soaring rates of obesity, and the related type II diabetes, now threaten to reverse the steady fall in heart disease mortality since the 1960s. Between 2000 and 2004, there was virtually no fall in death rates from among those aged between 35 and 44.

So why does animal research continue? Perhaps the most powerful obstacles are tradition and inertia – any attempts to alter entrenched practices are fiercely resisted. The ivory towers of biomedical academia are partially maintained by grants, which are easier to obtain via animal research. Vivisection is a major money-spinner, and much beloved by pharmaceutical companies for its ability to ’prove‘ whatever they want to claim. Lastly, in hopelessly misguided fashion, regulators mandate drug tests on animals despite their dreadful record in protecting patients.

Stopping animal experiments will not mean an end to scientific progress. There are now many cheaper, quicker, and reliable non-animal techniques on offer. Human clinical trials are the only way of properly evaluating a treatment’s safety and effectiveness. But prior to this, an array of techniques such as microdosing, non-invasive scanning, human cell and tissue assays, and high-powered computer modelling can predict more accurately the human outcomes. And the age-old mainstays of discovery – observation, epidemiology and autopsy – are as vital as ever.

There is now increasing scepticism about the whole premise of animal testing within the medical profession. The Safer Medicines Trust is an independent group of scientists and doctors, who are once again asking for a systematic comparison of animal testing with today’s advanced human biology methods. Their stance is supported by 83% of GPs – serious professionals with their patients’ interests at heart.

Their open attitude to debate is in stark contrast with the secrecy of the medical research charities. The public surely has a right to know if their generous donations are spent on animal research. Yet numerous charities would not give a clear answer even to basic questions – how many animals they use, and what they are used for – when contacted by Animal Aid.

Even if we ignore the cruelty (a manifest impossibility for individuals of conscience), research for research sake is not only pointless but a betrayal of a public hungry for real, true answers, not endless false dawns. Big Pharma and its cohorts in academia stand like colossi over the land of modern medicine. Depressingly, their apologists in government are in thrall to them – with a resultant unholy air of ethical deficiency pervading the whole set-up.

Animal Aid’s campaign is a brave but utterly necessary one. It should result in a public more informed and more sceptical about animal experiments, and prepared to donate only to those charities that do not sanction animal experiments. MPs will be urged to join the growing support for better non-animal alternatives. Challenging tradition and vested interest will not be easy, but it behoves us all to speed up the inevitable end of cruel and unhelpful research.

Adrian Stallwood, Specialist Doctor in Emergency Medicine at Withybush Hospital, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire

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