Monday, February 27, 2006

Pro-Test: supporting animal testing

A new campaign by Oxford students makes the case for scientific progress and medical research

In recent months, medical research and animal testing has become an increasingly inflammatory topic in Oxford, England. The media interest has so far been in student fears and grievances, and the violent methods and intimidation of the animal rights protesters.

All acts of violence on the part of animal rights protesters should be denounced, and there are laws in place for this. Yet SPEAK, the non-violent animal rights group, is fully within its right to protest and make its case, however noisily.

There is little merit in being drawn into a debate about the methods of animal rights groups. This shifts the attention away from the key issues, which concern science, and our understanding of the role played by medical research in the advancement of human knowledge and welfare. Animal experimentation is an integral and necessary component of such research, and should be defended for these reasons.

With this in mind, a 16-year-old student set up Pro-Test, with the idea of defending the construction of the new Oxford animal facility. Pro-Test began with a small-scale counter-demonstration on 28 January 2006 with the slogan 'Support Progress: Build the Oxford Animal Lab'. In reaction to the positive response from Oxford students, local business owners and other people on the day, a website was launched: Today, Pro-Test consists of a group of students who are concerned above all with the promotion of science, medical research, reasoned debate, and human welfare. The goal of Pro-Test is to make the case for animal testing. It is generally well known that vaccines, antibiotics, transplant surgeries, medical devices such as pacemakers, and other developments would not be here today if animal testing had not been used. But animal rights activists want to stop all current and future animal testing.

Challenging this through a defence of scientific experimentation should not be just the particular concern of Oxford students, or of scientists. It is an issue that concerns society as a whole, and goes to the heart of how we understand ourselves, and what vision we have of humanity and the capacity for bettering human welfare through the pursuit of scientific research. Life as we know it would not be possible without experimenting on animals.

Animal rights activists often demonise scientists, pretending that they are sadists who enjoy torturing animals just for the sake of it. There are countless examples of the lengths to which scientists go to minimise the suffering of animals. But the simple point is that scientists are not sadists: they act in the way that they see fit, according to principles that they share with the rest of us.

Animal research takes place not because of the laziness of scientists, or because it is just the cheapest option foisted on to scientists by pharmaceutical companies that put profits before anything else. They take place because they are a necessary component of scientific research. At the early stages of biomedical research, alternatives to animal testing exist, which is why the majority of research devoted to finding new treatments is done through chemical, biochemical, biological and pharmacological assays involving DNA, RNA, proteins, and mammalian cells.

But in the end, drugs must be tested in an animal model in order to see the effects of a compound in the entire body, not just in a cellular environment. Testing drugs in animals before doing so in humans helps researchers find potential toxic side effects, as well as understand the metabolism of drug compounds and consequent effects seen throughout the body. This cannot be replicated in cellular assays.

As in all fields of human activity, errors have been made. Animal rights activists use isolated cases as reasons for stopping animal testing. In fact, looking more closely at such cases suggests the opposite conclusion: not less but more testing.

A famous example often cited by animal rights groups is thalidomide. Thalidomide was introduced in 1956 and marketed as a sedative. Within several years, its use had spread around the world and women began taking it to help combat the nausea associated with pregnancy. In 1961, several physicians linked thalidomide with birth defects they observed in cases of female patients who had been taking it. Very quickly, these results were confirmed worldwide, and thalidomide was taken off the market.

Thalidomide did initially pass safety tests in animals because the proper tests - namely, testing thalidomide in pregnant animals - were not performed. If a thorough battery of tests had been performed in animals, the birth defects would have been detected. Animal rights groups confuse an error resulting from an absence of testing with one resulting from conducting tests on animals. They claim, quite erroneously, that thalidomide did not cause birth defects in animals, only humans. Once the drug was pulled off the market, additional tests in animals were done, and it was found that mice, rats, hamsters, marmosets and baboons all suffered similar effects as observed in humans....

In contemporary debate, animal rights groups dominate the agenda. Those who oppose animal rights groups often concede on the principle, and argue only with the methods of animal rights activists. Yet the only way to challenge the climate of fear that currently surrounds the debate on animal testing is to win the argument. Confidence in the strength of their ideas will give people the will to stand up to the threats and intimidation. This can only come through a defence of animal research as a necessary component of scientific experimentation.

Pro-Test stands by the belief that the value of human life is such that these drugs should be tested on animals before they are tested on any human beings.

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