The institution of animal experimentation is a house of cards, and a stiff wind is blowing at last.
At a meeting last month about federal funding for science, former National Institutes of Health director Elias Zerhouni admitted that experimenting on animals has been a boondoggle. “We have moved away from studying human disease in humans,” he said. ”We all drank the Kool-Aid on that one, me included.”
“The problem is that it hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem.” he continued. We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.”
Zerhouni’s comments are timely. Earlier this year, a high-profile study found that sophisticated tests using human cells accurately predict what happens to people when they’re burned and suffer infections, but that the standard method of burning mice’s skin off in experiments does not. Scientists now understand why all 150 drugs developed using these animals didn’t work in human patients. Current NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins called the finding, "a heartbreaking loss of decades of research and billions of dollars." Similar to Zerhouni’s recent sentiments, the study's lead author told the New York Times, "[Researchers] are so ingrained in trying to cure mice that they forget we are trying to cure humans."
This extrapolation problem exists with the species most biologically similar to humans as well. A landmark 2011 study by the Institute of Medicine found that “most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is unnecessary.” A subsequent NIH report agreed and even concluded that “research involving chimpanzees has rarely accelerated new discoveries or the advancement of human health for infectious diseases.” Yet, until very recently, NIH was spending millions on things like strapping down chimpanzees to have thousands of mosquitoes feed on their bare skin and separating baby chimpanzees from their mothers, locking them alone in cages, and forcing liquid filtered from human stool down their throats to intentionally sicken them with stomach viruses. Thankfully, the NIH announced last month that it will retire hundreds of chimpanzees to sanctuaries and cut funding for most invasive experiments on them.
Like the IOM’s chimpanzee study, and a 2007 National Academy of Sciences report that called for a drastic shift away from animal use for chemical toxicity testing, comprehensive reviews of all NIH-funded experiments on monkeys, mice, and every other nonhuman species are sorely needed. It is likely that they would reveal the same kind of waste of money and lives on experiments that have not helped humans in the past and may be unnecessary in the future.
The Food and Drug Administration has reported that 9 out of 10 drugs that are safe and effective in animals either don’t work in humans or cause harm. This spring, human trials of an experimental HIV vaccine – that were expanded based on experiments in monkeys – were halted when it was discovered that the vaccine did not prevent HIV infection or reduce viral load in those already infected. Indeed, all of the nearly 90 preventive HIV vaccines that made it to human clinical trials have failed despite working in experiments on monkeys. Harvard’s decision to shutter its embattled New England Primate Research Center, where many HIV studies on primates were being conducted, is a sign that such a prestigious institution doesn’t see experiments on primates as the future of science.
Despite all of this, the NIH continues to devote roughly half of its $30 billion budget to projects that involve experiments with animals, including those that infect monkeys with debilitating HIV-like illnesses, induce heart attacks in dogs forced to run on treadmills, mutilate rats’ penises in erectile dysfunction experiments, and other ethically and scientifically questionable studies.
The public has been willing to support experiments on animals only because it has not understood the cruelty involved and has accepted the argument that harming animals was crucial to advancing science. But many now think otherwise. Public opinion polls show that more Americans than ever find “medical testing on animals” to be “morally wrong” and the number is growing. These people are demanding accountability and effecting change in science policy and practice. The scientific reviews that ultimately led to the severe curtailment of experiments on chimpanzees were only undertaken because of moral outrage that the U.S. is the last country in the industrialized world that still engages in the practice.
The scientific community needs to pull its proverbial head out of the sand and acknowledge that poisoning, crippling, and infecting other animals in experiments isn’t a sound way to improve human health. Everyone wins if, as Dr. Zerhouni advises, researchers invest their time, money, and brainpower into further developing, refining and utilizing 21st century non-animal research methods that are actually relevant to humans.
Justin Goodman is the director of the laboratory investigations department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). He is also an adjunct instructor of sociology at Marymount University and serves on the leadership council of the American Sociological Association’s Animals and Society section.