Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Guidelines for conducting unethical and dangerous research should NOT be sanctioned in Australia

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has been conducting a public consultation on its proposed guidelines for performing clinical trials in xenotransplantation – a dangerous and unethical method of research. Submissions close today.

Xenotransplantation involves the transplantation of cells, tissue or organs from one species (usually genetically-modified pigs) to another and carries the risk of inactive viruses jumping across the species barrier resulting in a ‘xeno-zoonotic’ disease.

In 2004, I served on the NHMRC’s Animal Issues Sub Committee which provided recommendations to the Xenotransplantation Working Party (XWP) as part of the NHMRC’s review on this subject.  I was therefore privy to the full set of submissions received which addressed grave concerns and illustrated huge public opposition to the practice. After a lengthy consultation process the NHMRC recommended that no clinical trials involving animal to human transplantation should be conducted in Australia for five years as the risk of animal to human viral transmission was not well understood.  

The moratorium was sanctioned for good reason:
  • Continuing risks to the community
  • Public opinion
  • Animal welfare and suffering

The NHMRC reviewed its decision in December 2009 and the ban was overturned pending release of ‘guidelines’ for conducting xenotransplantation.  Now that these so-called guidelines have been released, clinical trials of xenotransplantation can proceed once the expected commencement date has been agreed.

Importantly, it has recently been reiterated to Humane Research Australia by medical experts that the critical concerns, which resulted in the 2004 moratorium being announced, remain unchanged.

The uncertainty of risks of disease transmission, particularly across the species barrier, has been acknowledged by researchers.  Clearly, this is not just a theoretical possibility but a very possible outcome.  AIDS is already believed to have been contracted from chimpanzees. BSE and Ebola viruses originated from cross-species contamination.  Some of the major flu epidemics from the start of last century were believed to have originated from pigs.  Porcine Endogenous Retrovirus (PERV) has already been discovered in the animals intended to be used as source animals. With continued emergence of new zoonoses from unexpected sources, the inability to diagnose potential xenozoonotic viruses with current tests and their unknown pathogenic behaviour, the chances of cross-species infection seems to be exceedingly and unacceptably high.  Even more alarming is that, even if detected, the viruses are largely untreatable.

The global panic over Swine flu could perhaps serve as a (very modest) precursor of how the world might react should a new zoonotic disease emerge from xenotransplantation. While the outbreak of the H1N1 virus (Swine flu) was declared by the World Health Organisation to be a “public health emergency of international concern”, a more virulent strain might easily have a much higher level of transmissibility and far more serious health consequences.

Chapter 3.6 of the draft guidelines acknowledges this risk and states:
“Xenotransplantation differs from most other medical research where it is research participants who are predominantly exposed to risks. In xenotransplantation, not only the research participant but also their identifiable contacts and members of the wider community may be exposed to risk. Xenotransplantation research involves some known and, potentially, some currently unknown infection risks to those other than the research participant. The possible risk of xenotransplantation causing novel or latent infectious and potentially untreatable diseases raises an ethical issue that cannot be addressed by the consent of the research participant alone, since others may also be exposed to risk by the research. Further, because of the possible public health risk, research participants will need to participate in long-term monitoring programs.”

There remains serious concern about allowing this research to proceed. Aside from the individual patient’s risk of contracting a zoonotic disease, they are putting the health of the entire community at risk.  An individual has the right to expose themselves to any risks involved in scientific research but to further expose that risk to the wider community that has not given consent, is highly unethical.  The number of individuals that could suffer and die from a new epidemic  or without wishing to overstate the risk, even pandemic, could greatly exceed those potential lives which xenotransplantation was supposed to have saved in the first place.

Xenotransplantation research also inflicts great suffering on animals. HRA has uncovered disturbing cases including baboons rendered diabetic and set to receive pancreatic islet cells from genetically modified piglets; and a baboon known as Conan who received a renal transplant (a kidney from a transgenic pig) and was then killed  due to the development of disseminated intravascular coagulation. [Widespread activation of clotting in small blood vessels throughout the body leading to compromise of tissue blood flow and multiple organ damage.]

For such dangerous research to even be contemplated we would need:
  • A full public debate, making it a community decision rather than leaving it to the research community as it will be the general public that will pay the ultimate penalty of any fallout;
  • The Productivity Commission to report on the full economic impact of xenotransplantation should it be allowed to proceed – including the possibility of epidemics and emergency response plans in such events ;
  • A moratorium on all current pre-clinical xenotransplantation studies until further notice. 

Australia simply cannot allow research into xenotransplantation to proceed. Not only does it expose the recipient to further complications and disease, but it exposes entire communities to the risk of potential zoonotic epidemics, causes extreme and unnecessary cruelty to countless animals and holds little promise of resolving the problem of a shortage of suitable human organs and tissues. The added shame is that people with conditions awaiting transplants may believe that xenotransplantation is an effective cure – it is not - and may only lead to more misery, disappointment and complications.

A full copy of HRA’s submission can be found here.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Illogical and unsubstantiated claims will NOT convince us that primate experiments are necessary

Animal researchers have finally been drawn out of the woodwork to defend their cruel and unjustifiable use of animals and they are looking more and more amateur.  Why?  Because the claims they are attempting to make in defence of their unnecessary practice are simply not factual.

Animal experimentation has been shrouded in secrecy for so long with few people even aware of the use of primates for research in Australia, but the recent introduction of a senate bill and subsequent senate hearings concerning the importation of primates for research has forced vivisectors to speak out in an attempt to justify their actions.

So, what are these claims they are making? The following is a link to one of the presentations made at the recent IQ2 debate: Animal Rights Should Trump Human Interests.

We shall consider each claim in the order it was presented.

“The use of some animals in medical research remains necessary. Remembering for every monkey in research over 4 million are used in the food and dairy industry.”

This is irrelevant.  Two wrongs do not make a right - the question is not solved in the positive simply due to other unethical practices. 

“As a scientist whose work utilises monkeys I knew that a ban on importation would lead very quickly to a level of in-breeding in Australian facilities that would render valuable research impossible and force it into countries known for their unregulated practices.”

Australia already has three government-funded breeding facilities where primates are bred specifically for research purposes. Opponents of the bill have been arguing that they need to continue importing more animals in order to maintain the genetic diversity of the colonies. Such a claim raises a red flag suggesting that they intend using higher numbers of animals in future research. That contravenes the universally accepted 3R’s principle (Reduce, Refine and Replace animals) that all researchers are supposed to adhere to. 
Australia does not have a good record in that department, because we are the fourth-highest user of animals in research in the world. For these reasons we should be looking at reducing the number and replacing primates in experiments – not increasing stock, which only illustrates a lack of commitment to the 3Rs.

“Reason always comes off second-best in the face of fear and suspicion. Fear and suspicion characterises much of the debate about animals in research and is cloaked in deliberate and wilful misinformation.  Images of horrific animal experiments undertaken in the 50’s regularly feature today in animal rights literature, even though these experiments have been outlawed for many years.”

There are a number of sweeping statements that cannot go unchallenged.  Which experiments have been outlawed for many years? What are the horrific images featuring in today’s literature and in what context? These generic claims are extremely non-specific and therefore cannot be taken seriously. It’s likely that any “fear and suspicion” is self-fulfilling and has arisen from the industry’s own strong reluctance to divulge information. 

What of the current literature which addresses current practices? Opposition to animal experiments has matured over the years to a far more professional approach which addresses current practices. In fact, case studies published by Humane Research Australia are based on scientific publications from recent years. Their purpose is to break down the scientific jargon and inform the public – in lay terms – exactly what is happening to animals in laboratories and for what purpose. They demonstrate that accounts of monkeys (and other animals) being locked into restraining devices, having electrodes implanted in their skulls, induced with artificial diseases and undergoing other highly invasive procedures are not some exaggerated claims from yesteryear. They are happening right here and now.

“The Bill, defeated as it was, recycled many myths about animal experimentation… dangerous myths that computers and petri dishes can replace animals, that experiments inflict unnecessary cruelty and suffering, that baby monkeys are every day being ripped out the arms of their dead mothers in the jungle by poachers and then traded through unregulated corrupt profiteering to end up being tortured by mad scientists addicted to outdated scientific models.”

In reality the Bill didn’t recycle dangerous myths at all. The Bill instead brought the public’s attention to the dangers of relying on data from species which differ from us in their anatomy, genetics and metabolism. HRA does not espouse such a simplistic approach to replacing animals with computers and petri dishes, but rather acknowledges the need to undertake a battery of human-specific tests, embracing new technologies such as (but not limited to) body-on-a-chip, human tissue banks and non-invasive imaging techniques amongst others.  An arsenal of information obtained from a range of human-specific research methods will result in more accurate data than that obtained from another species, whose intricate cellular differences account for exponential variants that can result in dangerous outcomes when extrapolated to humans.

“Indeed, while humanity is making ever more incredible scientific advances, regular polling shows a growing and alarming public disagreement about basic scientific facts, including human evolution, the safety of vaccines and whether human-caused climate change is real.”

Notwithstanding the topics mentioned, could the “growing and alarming public disagreement” be interpreted as concerns raised from a growing public awareness, and if so, isn’t this a good thing? Don’t taxpayers deserve accountability for their public investments? For too long, researchers have remained unchallenged and have continued to waste valuable resources on animal experiments. Meanwhile, millions of people are suffering and dying of diseases for which still have no cure – because scientists continue to use the wrong species!

“But let me indulge here in some very recent examples of why I believe non-human primate research is important.  Recently researchers infected monkeys with the Zika virus because it is the closest scientist can get to understanding in real time what is happening when humans are infected with this virus.
In 2015, the world witnessed the worst epidemic of the Ebola virus to date. Monkeys were treated with an antibody isolated from a human Ebola survivor and developed almost complete protection against a lethal dose of Ebola.
And yet opponents of animal research argue that knowledge gained from monkey research is inapplicable to humans.  This claim is utterly and dangerously false. Anyone that argues that insights gained from animals are meaningless, is either poorly informed or knowingly untruthful.”

Both sides of the debate can cherry pick examples of the utility or danger of using animal data. It is often argued that the use of primates has been instrumental in the development of major medical breakthroughs but examples often used, such as the development of the Polio Vaccine and treatment for Parkinson’s Disease, are often misrepresentative of the facts.
[Polio is contracted through the digestinal tract in humans whereas in monkeys, it’s contracted through the respiratory system.   The original vaccine ‘successfully’ tested in monkeys, resulted in numerous human deaths and paralysis.  
Deep brain stimulation for sufferers of Parkinson’s disease is often credited to the cruel work with monkeys, yet the practice has been used to treat human sufferers since the 1940’s - decades before the current primate model. ]

Conversely we might consider the recent much publicised drug disaster in France whereby six healthy men participating in a Phase 1 clinical trial of a new drug, code named BIA 10-2474, ended up with serious neurological damage (and one of whom died). The drug, intended to treat pain and anxiety, was believed to have been tested on chimpanzees yet the test results did not extrapolate well to humans.

Even more recently, Pacritinib, a test drug for the treatment of a rare blood cancer called myelofibrosis, caused volunteers to suffer brain haemorrhages or heart failure – after animal models failed to predict these outcomes.

Now we appear to be traveling down a familiar trajectory with the Zika virus. Shouldn’t we learn from our past mistakes and not succumb to scare tactics?

The bottom line is, cherry picking will not assist either side of the debate. We therefore need to consider the empirical evidence – systematic reviews, meta analyses and retrospective analysis – and these continually indicate the lack of utility of primate experiments.

“The political reality, however, is that the imagery and language peddled by animal research opponents is utterly confronting.”

It would worthwhile getting examples of this so called imagery and language so peddled, to support the case.

“The facts, if you care to accept them, are:
First, non-human primates used for research in Australia are sourced from regulated breeding facilities overseas. They are not taken from the jungle.”

Until recently, macaques were sourced from Tinjil Island in Indonesia – a free-living colony which has been documented and filmed by Cruelty Free International. Undercover footage has revealed crude capture methods, separation of family members and stark holding cages. This is all available on film. HRA has also received confirmation that macaques used for HIV studies in Australia were indeed sourced from Tinjil Island.

More recently, marmosets have been flown in from a French facility. So far, two of these animals have been found listless, bleeding and gasping for breath. They both died earlier this year. According to Monash University, their deaths were unexpected and unexplained.  So, regardless of whether animals have been wild-caught (which is actually illegal) or obtained from a “credible” breeding facility, surely we can agree that the long-distance transportation of these highly cognitive animals in the cargo hold of a plane is major cause for concern?

“Second, All animal research in Australia is conducted under the strictest scrutiny and follows the principles of reduction, refinement and replacement known as the 3Rs. Under these principles, animal-based research is only approved by a qualified animal ethics committee, which includes members of the lay public, welfare organisations and veterinarians.”

The current regulatory system is in fact self-regulated and is known to be far from protective for lab animals. Recent concerns have been raised with the Victorian government – responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act., but not even aware of the aforementioned incidents involving the unexpected and unexplained deaths of marmosets.

Further concerns about the role of animal ethics committees are the inconsistencies in decision making, the lack of scientific expertise of the animal welfare and layperson to challenge the scientific validity and justification of the protocols they are expected to approve and the non-requirement for animal facility inspections to be unannounced.

Despite the many inadequacies of the system, ethics committees are held up to provide assurance to the public that the use of animals has been carefully considered and justified. This does not correlate with the worries expressed to HRA by members of these committees.

“However, researchers remain hesitant to speak out as history tells us that this can have significant repercussions on the individual and the research program. I fear with recent activist developments in Europe, scientific advances in health have been retarded.”

Retarded? …or challenged?  The key measure to good science is its ability to be questioned and to withstand scrutiny. Without this fundamental requirement it becomes nothing more than a religious doctrine.

To use sentient, highly cognitive animals as “tools for research” is certainly cruel, but just as importantly, it does not represent good science. Despite the genetic similarity, primates are not sufficiently predictive of human outcomes due to the many genetic, metabolic and anatomical differences between them and us. There have been several research papers and systematic analyses published recently that confirm this. In fact it has been suggested that the predictability of primate models is no more accurate than the toss of a coin.

Finally, it has been said that during the IQ2 debate, a participant debating against animal experiments was referred to as “demented”.  Clearly, the vivisectors would do well to nominate a new spokesperson to defend their work, as resorting to personal attacks and innuendos only weakens their position and deflects from the core issue – the (ir)relevance of using non-human animals as models for human disease.

Whilst animal experiments has always been, and will remain, a highly polarising issue, what we now need is a non-emotive, science-based discussion that addresses the shortcomings of animal-based data and the urgent need to develop and validate human-based methods of research. Until then, both animals and humans will continue to suffer needlessly.

Monday, 4 April 2016

The Old Brown Dog

The original statue erected in 1906 and believed to have been
destroyed in 1910
The Brown Dog was a bronze statue of a dog, erected in February 1906 after being commissioned by anti-vivisectionists, as a memorial for a brown terrier dog used by  William Bayliss of the Department of Physiology at University College London. It was claimed he performed an illegal vivisection, before an audience of 60 medical students, on the dog – adequately anaesthetized, according to Bayliss; conscious and struggling, according to the activists.   Bayliss was outraged by the assault on his reputation. He sued for libel and won.

Medical students were angered by the provocative plaque on the statue –  "In Memory of the Brown Terrier Dog done to death in the Laboratories of University College in February, 1903, after having endured vivisection extending over more than two months and having been handed over from one Vivisector to another till death came to his release. Also in memory of the 232 dogs vivisected at the same place during the year 1902.  Men and women of England, how long shall these things be?" – leading to frequent vandalism of the memorial and the need for a 24-hour police guard against the so-called anti-doggers. 

On 10 December 1907 a thousand medical students marched through central London waving effigies of the brown dog on sticks, clashing with suffragettes, trade unionists and 400 police officers, one of a series of battles known as the Brown Dog riots

Tired of the controversy, Battersea Council arranged under darkness for the statue to be taken down and melted down by the council's blacksmith, despite a 20,000-strong petition in its favour.  A new statue of the brown dog was commissioned by anti-vivisection groups over 70 years later, and was erected in Battersea Park in 1985.

The Old Brown Dog:  Women, Workers and Vivisection in Edwardian England.

Author: Coral Lansbury 1985

“In 1907, an extraordinary series of antivivisection riots took place in Battersea over the structure of a brown dog in the Latchmere Recreational Ground.  Medical students came across the river from London University and tried to destroy it, and a crowd of trade unions and feminists, momentarily united by their opposition to vivisection, battled to defend the brown dog.”

So begins a detailed and often confronting account which draws parallels between the fight against vivisection, trade union rights and women’s suffrage in Edwardian England as the author, Coral Lansbury, contends that workers and feminists identified themselves with the trembling animal strapped to the operating table.  Her rendition is supported through analysis of novels and events of the time. The book is not specifically about antivivisection, but does present a fascinating history of the movement exploring the hurdles faced by antivivisection pioneers such as Frances Power Cobbe (founder of NAVS and BUAV), Anna Kingsford and Louise Lind-af-Hageby.

While tremendous progress has been made over the years in the areas of both workers and women’s rights, the same cannot, unfortunately, be said about vivisection.  We are today still subjecting hundreds of millions of animals worldwide to often painful and invasive procedures for what we know now are dubious degrees of relevance. Their treatment is much the same as that described by Lansbury when she details the invasive nature of genital examination of women by trainee doctors (p.85-86) or the callous treatment and sexual exploitation of female servants by their landlords (Ch.7).

Lansbury writes strongly about vivisection demonstrations: “When observers like Frances Cobbe and Louise Lind-af-Hageby witnessed these demonstrations, they felt as though they were in the presence of a new pornography, and all the animals stretched out writhing on boards were like women on the gynaecologist’s table or bound to some chair…” (p.111)

Over 100 years later one can compare this with extracts from recent scientific publications about primate research in Australia:

“… a circular aluminium frame that enclosed the entire scalp was fixed to the skull using 6-8 stainless steel pegs. Access to brain areas for recordings was through small conical tubes that were placed in 2.5mm diameter holes drilled in the skull.”[1]

“Animals were infected with a 104 TCID50 dose of SIVMAC251 either intrarectally or intravaginally… SIV infection was confirmed in all animals”[2]

Lansbury also tells us (p123) “catalogues for physicians and surgeons were replete with descriptions for the new gynaecological operating chairs and tables illustrated with line drawings or photographs showing a woman strapped into ...position” and that Johnson’s operating chair of 1860 ... is described as “a frame supported on four legs, a shallow stuffed seat and a stuffed back with was maneuverable to various angles by means of a frame and ratchet. It had two attached bars ending in stirrups or footrests, which could slide in and out of a groove, or be removed entirely”.

Today’s researchers use similar contraptions called stereotaxic frames for immobilising animals in a similar manner. A typical (and disturbing) protocol is documented in “Preparation for the in vivo recording of neuronal responses in the visual cortex of anaesthetised marmosets (Callithrix jacchus)[3].
 A new statue, by Nicola Hicks,
was erected in 
Battersea Park in 1985.

Of particular interest was the violent reaction of medical students who vehemently opposed the statue and sought aggressively to destroy it with sledgehammers. Then during a heavily guarded antivivisection meeting held by Louise Lind-af-Hageby as described by Lansbury:, “over a hundred students managed to smuggle their way in, and soon the meeting was pandemonium, with broken chairs, fistfights, and smoke bombs” with medical students demanding to have the statue’s inscription removed(p.18).

It is often argued by those who conduct animal experiments that they must remain secretive about their work due to the perceived threats of “animal liberationists”. However, like the previous passage, it is not the animal activists who react aggressively, but rather the researchers themselves who object to the questioning of their right to treat animals as their tools.

Lansbury, who died in 1991, was estranged from her son Malcolm Turnbull since he was aged ten, however it is understood she remained an influential force in his life.  It is disappointing then, that her recognition of injustice – including that of animals – seems not to have swayed the government’s support of animal-based research under Turnbull’s leadership.

[1] Information processing bottlenecks in macaque posterior parietal cortex: an attentional blink? Ryan T. Maloney, Jaikishan Jayakumar, Ekaterina V. Levichkina, Ivan N. Pigarev, Trichur R. Vidyasagar, Exp Brain Res (2013) 228:365-376 DOI 10.1007/s00221-013-3569-2
[2] Comparison of Influenza and SIV Specific CD8 T Cell Responses in Macaques (2012) Sinthujan Jegaskanda, Jeanette C. Reece, Robert De Rose, John Stambas, Lucy Sullivan, Andrew G. Brooks, Stephen J. Kent, Amy Sexton
[3] “Preparation for the in vivo recording of neuronal responses in the visual cortex of anaesthetised marmosets (Callithrix jacchus)” James Bourne, Marcello Rosa, (2003)

Friday, 25 March 2016

They All Had Eyes – a must read

A couple of months ago an appeal for a crowd-funding campaign appeared in my inbox. It was for “They All Had Eyes – confessions of a vivisectionist”.  It looked like a very worthwhile cause – a rare opportunity to reveal what occurs inside an animal laboratory - so I made a small contribution. Several weeks later I received an electronic copy of the completed book.
I was looking forward to reading it, but must confess that I am trying to get through a backlog of reading so it was put aside for the time being.

This week I had a power outage at home. There was not much I could do in the darkness but luckily my Kindle was charged so I took the opportunity to start reading They All Had Eyes. I’m so glad I did.

It has been some time since a book had enthralled me, but I read the opening paragraph in the preface and tears welled in my eyes. It hadn’t even begun at this stage to address the treatment of animals in laboratories, but had already instilled in me the immense feeling of guilt and regret felt by the author over what he had done throughout his working career.

The author discloses the matter-of-fact manner in which sentient animals are routinely used and then killed, then exposes his awakening as he refers to certain laboratories as “torture chambers.”

It must be a terribly difficult thing to acknowledge that your entire life’s work may have been misdirected. I am aware of a number of people who have trodden the vivisector’s path fully believing that they were doing the noble thing for mankind in conducting a “necessary evil” on animals, and then later acknowledging the unbearable and unjustifiable cruelty they inflicted on sentient beings. This account however, touched me deeply and I struggled to put the book down.

Accounts of monkey experiments in the latter part of the book describing the removal of brain tissue and eyes were particularly moving considering the work using primates currently undertaken by researchers at Monash, Melbourne and Sydney Universities in particular.

HRA’s policy is to challenge animal experiments on scientific grounds – arguing that data obtained from animals cannot be extrapolated to humans with sufficient accuracy.  HRA’s view is that factual and non-emotive argument is critical to counter scientists’ claims of the necessity of animal use, however we mustn’t forget that at the very core of the debate are millions of animals.  These animals are sentient individuals who have an interest in living free from harm and suffering, or as the author states “own thoughts and a goal in life” and despite us focusing on the science, there are also highly ethical grounds on which to oppose vivisection.

The book also reminded me of a discussion with a fellow student during my studies at Monash University.  An animal technician was telling a group of us how she would not respond to her children’s friends’ question about what she did for a living as “they would not understand”. Maybe they would understand and that was the problem.  Perhaps deep down there was some sub-conscious awareness that what she was doing was unethical.

The picture I have included in this blog is a postcard I have kept on my desk for over twenty years now at various workplaces. It has served me well to remember those individuals whose lives have been lost in the name of science. It keeps me focused and determined to never forget them and to continue speaking out for them.

They All Had Eyes will also help me with this focus.  How very grateful I am for this week’s power outage and how grateful I am to author Michael Slusher for his courage in sharing his difficult story.

I urge you to read this book, available through Amazon, and I’d love to hear your own thoughts.       

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Paleo Diet makes MICE fat - your tax dollars at work

Last week I read with interest the latest findings on the Paleo diet.

The article began “Researchers who set out to prove the benefits of the Paleo diet have instead discovered it could cause significant and rapid weight gain.” 

The research paper was published in Nature’s Nutrition and Diabetes journal.

Now, as a long term vegan I am in no way advocating a Paleo diet, but on this occasion you’ve got to acknowledge that celebrity chef, and avid Paleo advocate, Pete Evans has a fairly strong point.

Evans said "The first question I'd ask is: 'Why are they testing mice on a diet that isn't their natural diet in the first place?'" That’s a very valid question, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

The article (linked above) reads “Mice were used for the study due to their genetic, biological, and behavioural characteristics which closely resemble that of humans.”

I’m really having trouble with that statement.

The chimpanzee genome (complete genetic material) is 98.77 percent identical to that of humans, therefore, researchers argue that chimpanzees will be the species most likely to replicate human outcomes in scientific (biomedical and toxicity) testing. However this small genetic variation between human and chimpanzees accounts for very significant differences in the way diseases affect the two species.  You only need to look at the tragic results of what happened in France recently when a new drug (BIA 10-2474, to treat pain and anxiety) ‘successfully’ tested in chimpanzees was translated to humans.  One man dead and others suffering permanent brain damage.

So if that’s a consequence of our differences to  chimpanzees – genetically our closest relatives – how can it be claimed that mice are suitable models based on their genetic and biological characteristics? 

As for their behavioural similarities to us, well I’m baffled by that claim.

The intricate differences in genetics, anatomy and metabolism make them poorly predictive of human outcomes and a number of recently published papers and systematic reviews have confirmed this. In fact, 95% of drugs deemed “successful” in animal tests fail in human clinical trials, suggesting the current model is simply not working.

This leads to another concern. Why weren’t humans studied for this research? There are already many people following the Paleo diet so why not use them in an epidemiological study? This way environmental and social elements could be factored into the equation, but more importantly, the data obtained from this research would be directly applicable to the species it is intended to benefit – humans – and not provide misleading data extrapolated form another species that differs from us genetically, anatomically and metabolically.

To clarify, I am not advocating for a Paleo diet, but such research as this which criticises the diet based on what happens to mice is failing medical research 101. 

I guess the only real lesson to be learned from this research is to not feed mice a high fat, low carb diet or else they may likely put on weight!   Once again, a frivolous waste of our tax dollars, courtesy of the National Health & Medical Research Council.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

“Animal testing has saved tens of millions of lives”

That seems to be the base argument of all those such as Speaking of Research and other pro-vivisection groups around the world. We hear it quite often, but let's take a look at that statement. 

Following a recent hearing for a bill, introduced by Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, to ban the importation of primates for research purposes, there has been an increase in media coverage including some researchers defending their use of animals.

They often argue that the use of animals – primates in particular - has been instrumental in the development of major medical breakthroughs. The reality is that whilst animals are widely used for medical research, they are far from being an appropriate model, and certainly could not be credited for any ‘breakthrough’. The genetic, anatomic and metabolic differences between humans and other animals mean that any data obtained from animal tests cannot be translated to humans with sufficient accuracy. Even when genetically modified, there is no single animal model that can accurately mimic the complex human situation. There are far too many unknown variables that cannot all be accounted for.

Three of the most common examples used by researchers are:
  • Development of the Polio Vaccine
  • Deep Brain stimulation as a treatment for Parkinson’s Disease
  • MORE animal testing (including on pregnant animals) would have avoided the Thalidomide disaster of the sixties

These claims are misrepresentative of the historical records.

With regards to the polio vaccine, monkey experiments were involved in its development, however Polio is contracted through the digestinal tract in humans but through the respiratory system in monkeys. The original vaccine resulted in numerous deaths and paralysis. Then further experiments (on monkeys) led to development of a nasal treatment which caused permanent olfactory damage to children. In 1941, Dr Albert Sabin studied human autopsies to disprove the nasal theory and stated: “…prevention was long delayed by the erroneous conception of the nature of the human disease based on misleading experimental models of the disease in monkeys” Finally, in 1949, Nobel Laureate John Enders grew the virus in tissue cultures. He did unfortunately use monkey tissue which resulted in a virus (SV4O) jumping the species barrier. It is now grown in human cell culture (and could have been originally).
(Source: Safer Medicines)

More recently, deep brain stimulation for sufferers of Parkinson’s disease is often credited to the terribly cruel work with MPTP (1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine).)- treated monkeys, developed after the serendipitous discovery of symptoms of parkinsonism in young drug addicts exposed to the narcotic contaminant. Yet the practice has actually been used to treat sufferers since the 1940’s - many years before the first ever description of the MPTP-primate model ever existed.[1] 

Thalidomide – showed no detrimental side effects in animals but caused immense suffering in tens of thousands of children born with missing or deformed limbs. It has been claimed that had it been tested on pregnant animals we would have seen malformations, however after thousands of malformed babies were born researchers started conducting teratogenicity tests and failed to produce similar malformations in numerable other species.
Finally, the White New Zealand rabbit also gave birth to deformed offspring, but only at a dose between 25 to 300 times that given to humans. It also eventually occurred in monkeys, but only at ten times the normal dose. The bottom line is that more animal testing would not have found the side effects, and even if they had tested on the White New Zealand rabbit, Thalidomide would still have gone to market since the vast majority of species showed no ill effect. It is only possible to produce specific deformities in specific species, and chances are the right species would never have been used.

There are several other examples throughout history where animal research has been given undue credit.

William Harvey has been credited as being the first to provide an accurate description of the blood’s circulation in 1628 through using animals (although it has been reported that the Chinese understood the blood’s action as early as 2,650 B.C.). However Dr Lawson Tait (one of the most famous surgeons of the nineteenth century responded:
”That he [Harvey] made any contribution to the facts of the [blood circulation] case by vivisection is conclusively disproved… It is, moreover, perfectly clear that were it incumbent on anyone to prove the circulation of the blood as a new theme, it could not be done by any vivisectional process but could, at once, be satisfactorily established by a dead body and an injecting syringe.”[2]

Ovarian function was demonstrated by physician Dr. Robert.T. Morris in 1895 in surgical procedures on women, yet history credits the discovery to Emil Knauer who one year later reproduced the procedure in rabbits in 1896.[3]

Banting and Best are often cited as having discovered insulin through animal experiments in 1922. However further investigation of the history of diabetes reveals that this is not quite the case. The connection between diabetic symptoms and the pancreas dates back to 1788 when an English physician, Thomas Cawley, performed an autopsy on a diabetic. Unfortunately subsequent research on animals delayed the acceptance of his hypothesis. Despite the existence of this knowledge, it was evidence obtained from Banting and Best’s dog experiments that was the convincing factor for scientists.

In summary, animals have been used throughout history in crude and invasive experiments, but the fact that they were used in the process does not imply that they were a necessary part of the development of these treatments. There's certainly no doubt that animals have been used in almost every medical breakthrough. The questions are however, whether their use played an essential role, whether the breakthroughs could have been made without using animals and whether more knowledge and progress would actually have been gained without their use. The fact that they were used as part of a medical discovery does not make them complicit in that discovery.

Conversely it could be argued that animal testing has instead cost tens of millions of lives – particularly when we consider that Penicillin was delayed for 15 years and blood transfusions for more than a century due to misleading data from animals. Imagine how many lives would have been saved had we not been misled by animal tests!

So, let’s not take the vivisector’s claims at face value. Let’s start challenging them and questioning the need for animals in the first place and whether we are likely to find better outcomes from human-specific research. We should never be bamboozled by such claims simply because the messenger is wearing a white coat.

[1] Burns RS et al. 1983. A primate model of parkinsonism: selective destruction of dopaminergic neurons in the pars compacta of the substantia nigra. PNAS 80:4546.
[2] Tait, L. (1882) Transactions of the Birmingham Medical Society, quoted by Greek, R and Swingle Greek, Jean, (2002) Specious Science
[3] Greek R. and Swingle Greek, Jean (2002) Sacred Cows and Golden Geese.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The dirty secrets they don’t want you to know…

Looking in from the outside, animal experimentation is shrouded in secrecy.  It’s certainly not easy to find out what’s actually happening to animals in research labs even though our tax payer dollars are very frequently funding the experiments.   Is it actually that secretive, or are we just not asking the right questions? And if experiments on animals are really necessary to provide useful information to improve human health and wellbeing, why is it so guarded?

We (at HRA) ask questions – a lot of questions.  We don’t however receive many answers.  We regularly request animal usage statistics – a very basic request one would think – but not all states provide these, those that do are often years in arrears, and there is inconsistency between states’ reporting, making a national overall figure very difficult to obtain.  We have now even been advised by the Queensland government that they will “no longer collect statistics on the use of animals for research” partly because “there is no legislative obligation”, they are “not meaningful”, “collecting statistics does not improve the welfare of any animal” and “without a compelling business case to update (the database) there is little incentive to do so.”
Being denied this very basic piece of information would make you wonder how on earth we can get more intricate details of what actually happens behind lab doors.

Here’s one example.

HRA sometimes gets information from “unofficial” sources. Of course we cannot use such information publicly as it cannot be verified.  For that reason we need to pursue official routes to obtain this information.
A few months ago we became aware through several means, of a very controversial procedure conducted on a baboon named Conan.  Shortly after the procedure, Conan was killed due to the development of disseminated intravascular coagulation [Widespread activation of clotting in small blood vessels throughout the body leading to failing blood flow and multiple organ damage.]   The experiment had failed.
While we had sufficient evidence that this had occurred we were unable to use it, so we sought similar research in medical journals and then sent a request under the Government Information Public Access (GIPA) Act to the relevant body to enquire whether the research had proceeded to the level we were aware of.  We were told it hadn’t (which we believed to be untrue).  We therefore resubmitted a new GIPA application naming Conan and specifically requesting details of his death. The response was “to refuse access to the information you have requested because there is an overriding public interest against disclosure of the information.”
So, Conan was killed because the experiment he was used in didn’t work, but you’re not allowed to know about it, even though the breeding of baboons for research is paid for by you through National Health and Medical Research (ie taxpayer-funded) grants.

(Further details on Conan and his companion Scar were featured in the Sydney Morning Herald 24/1/16)

Compare this secrecy with the situation in the European Union.  Article 43.3 Directive 2010/63/EU now requires that non-technical summaries (NTS) are published by the European Member States in order to provide the public with access to information concerning projects using live animals.

NTS must include title, purpose, objectives and benefits, number and type of animals, predicted harms and application of the 3Rs (Reduction, Refinement & Replacement). They must be written in non-scientific language and accessible for five years.

Certain projects (including those which use non-human primates) must also undergo a retrospective analysis – a powerful tool to facilitate critical review of the use of animals. It is believed that this facilitates improved design for similar studies, raises openness of best practice and prevents mistakes.

That however, is the European Union, and Australia has no such transparency. Animal experimentation in Australia remains an apparent ‘dirty secret’ and until we can break the shroud of secrecy it will remain difficult, or almost impossible, to have an open and honest debate about what happens to animals and whether it is justified in terms of medical progress for humans.
For further information about the need for transparency please visit Through the Looking Glass.
For more information about Conan (and his companion Scar) visit We remember you Conan.