Should vivisection be banned?
HEADTOHEAD: Laura Broxsonargues that vivisection is cruel, unnecessary and rooted in a refusal to see animals as our equals, while Veronica Campbellsays a ban would end scientific advances in medicine and deprive patients of treatments for incurable conditions
VIVISECTION IS the live experimentation on, and dissection of, animals. Thousands of animals such as mice, rats, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, rabbits and pigs, to name but a few, are killed this way in Ireland every year - in laboratories such as those in Trinity College Dublin.
The secrecy that surrounds these animal experiments indicates that the atrocities involved would be unacceptable to most people.
Some colleges claim that they only experiment on animals who are under anaesthetic. This can be an extremely misleading statement, as by this, a lot of researchers are actually referring to a process called "pithing".
Pithing is a procedure used to immobilise an animal, by inserting a needle up through the base of the skull (from the back) and then wiggling the needle around, scrambling the brain, and severing the spine. This allows for live dissection, and the observation of the animal's living physiology (as the animal is still actually alive). The animal may be unable to move, but who can say whether or not it is actually brain dead, and not just brain damaged, when forced to endure the experiment? If the scientists and students who conduct tests in Trinity College truly believe in what they are doing, and have no ethical qualms about it, we would challenge them to set up live webcams in their laboratories, so that anyone may tune in and watch what they are doing, at any given time.
Vivisection is not essential to medical progress. Animals do not need to suffer in order to find cures for human diseases. The fundamental flaw of animal-based research is referred to as "species difference".
This means that animal tests are basically unreliable as a way to predict effects in humans. Not only that, but as we have seen many times, positive results in animal studies can prove disastrous when applied to humans. In fact, animal research has been shown time and again to hold back medical progress for people.
Here are just a few examples: arthritis painkiller Vioxx, which was withdrawn in 2004, caused over 140,000 strokes and heart attacks (almost 60,000 fatal), even though it appeared safe when tested on animals.
In the 1980s, thousands of people were given HIV-contaminated blood, which was deemed safe as it did not affect chimpanzees (chimpanzees are essentially immune to HIV).
Blood transfusions were delayed by 200 years and corneal transplants delayed by 90 years as a result of animal studies.
Twenty-two drugs to treat spinal cord damage were developed on animals - all failed when applied to humans.
The notoriously dangerous drugs thalidomide and diethylstilbestrol (DES) were tested on animals and released for human use. Tens of thousands suffered and/or died as a result.
In 2006, TGN1412, a new drug for leukaemia, cancer, multiple sclerosis and arthritis, caused disastrous side effects in the first human volunteers - even though it had passed tests on monkeys who were given doses 500 times greater than those given to the volunteers.
Rats and mice are the animals primarily used in cancer research. They never get carcinomas, the human form of cancer which affects membranes (eg lung cancer). Their sarcomas affect bone and connecting tissue: the two cannot be compared.
Even a former director of Huntingdon Life Sciences (which is one of Europe's largest animal testing facilities) admitted that animal tests only correctly predict effects in humans between 5 and 25 per cent of the time. Compare that to the fact that human cell culture tests have proven to be 80 per cent accurate.
Today there is a wealth of sophisticated techniques available for use that offer a cruelty-free, reliable alternative to animal testing, including computer modelling, tissue cultures, epidemiological studies and clinical studies. DNA chips provide further valuable information. They allow researchers to see who will respond to a drug, who will not respond, and who may be harmed by it.
But more important than any scientific argument is the fact that there is absolutely no moral or ethical justification whatsoever in testing on animals - regardless of any benefit to humans it may result in.
If humans were the ones being experimented on against their will, would you agree with it? Of course not! So what makes people feel that it is acceptable to use animals in this way? Is it a trait inherent in humans, to take advantage of beings whom they deem "lesser"? To exploit the vulnerable, profit from suffering, or to deny a fellow species of this planet their fundamental right to life, to freedom? Animals are living, breathing, feeling, sentient beings who deserve to be treated as equals - and it's time people started to realise this.
We are calling upon the people of this country to help us stop the crimes inflicted against animals every day in Trinity College. Demand justice - demand a complete ban on vivisection in Ireland.
• Laura Broxson is an activist with the National Animal Rights Association
BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH is driven by the necessity to develop therapies for diseases that are currently incurable. The translation of new therapies from the laboratory into the clinic only arises following years of rigorously conducted research involving an array of experimental approaches, including computer modelling of drug-protein interactions, the investigation of cell function in a Petri dish and animal experimentation. The final stages in the development of a new drug or therapeutic strategy involves studies on healthy humans and eventually a clinical trial.
The issue of animal experimentation has been a topical point in recent days, brought to the fore by the author John Banville, in collaboration with the National Animal Rights Association. I wish to clarify the legal, ethical and scientific issues relevant to animal experimentation in biomedical research.
Animal experimentation is conducted only by experienced researchers who work within stringent ethical guidelines dictated by the Department of Health and Children, in accordance with European legislation.
In Ireland, animals used by researchers, which are predominately rats and mice, are housed in designated high specification units and are monitored closely by a veterinarian and qualified animal care staff. Researchers can only commence a study involving animals if they provide adequate scientific and ethical justification for the use of animals, the choice of species and minimum numbers of animals being used in the study. Those criteria are subject to repeated scrutiny by international panels of experts, funding agencies, scientific journals and universities.
Yes, alternatives to animal experiments exist and those approaches can provide information of value and are always considered by researchers in the first instance. For example, they can inform how a new drug may influence the function of a particular cell type. However, the very nature of those in vitro experiments, usually performed in cultured cells grown on a Petri dish, only provides a small piece of the physiological jigsaw that forms the intact body. No emergent property of a complex living system (eg high blood pressure) can be studied exclusively in a dish and the consequence of disease and the efficacy of experimental therapies on a whole organism must be considered before any advances can translate into improvements in patient care.
It is inaccurate to state that vivisection is performed on conscious animals in our universities. Rather, such experiments are performed in surgically anaesthetised animals with post-operative analgesia. Vivisection is an imprecise term to describe the use of animals in biomedical research. It simply describes the cutting of living flesh and is used in a highly-emotive fashion by groups opposed to the use of animals in research. One could describe the removal of a mole as vivisection, although I doubt that our hospital administrators would wish their units of surgical speciality to be known as departments of general vivisection.
There are many diseases that have no effective cure. Alzheimer's disease is a chronic debilitating neurodegenerative condition that is devastating for patients and their families. This disease is estimated to affect 10 per cent of people over the age of 65 and 25 per cent of people over the age of 80. In Ireland there are 40, 000 individuals with Alzheimer's disease and with an increasingly aged population, this demographic shift is expected to cause a rise in the prevalence of the disease. Researchers strive to offer patients and their relatives a cure, but this will not be possible in the absence of animal studies to model the pathophysiology of the disease, nor a living system to optimise delivery of novel drugs.
Opponents of animal experimentation claim that non-human experiments have contributed little or nothing to treatment of human patients. This is untrue. The entire edifice of the biological sciences rests on experiments conducted on animals. Without this rich heritage there would be no conception of the circulation of the blood, the discovery of hormones, the origin of the heartbeat and the first breath - vital functions elucidated by vital experiments on animals.
Animal experiments conducted by Frederick Banting in the 1920s demonstrated that the incurable disease diabetes could be treated with injections of a new active principle called insulin. Prior to this revolutionary discovery parents had to choose between watching their children die slowly from sugar restriction and malnutrition or quickly from feeding and ketoacidotic coma.
Medical advances based on animal studies are not restricted to the early part of the 20th century. Biomedical researchers in Ireland continue to strive towards finding cures for cancer and neurodegenerative conditions, as well as improved therapies for epilepsy, immune disorders and cardiovascular disease.
A ban on animal experiments would halt advances in medicine and would deprive patients and their families of a treatment for many medical conditions that are incurable and surgical conditions that are inoperable.
• Prof Veronica Campbell is Head of Physiology at the School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin