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May 1995
Animal Research in March of Dimes Funding

By David B. Wasser


Each year at the end of April, the major fundraising event known as WalkAmerica: The March of Dimes takes place, to raise money for the prevention of birth defects. David Wasser, Media Director of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, explains why some of the money raised will go to waste.

The March of Dimes was founded in 1938 with a goal to prevent birth defects, low birth weight and infant mortality through programs in research, education, community service and advocacy. In 1993, the organization’s revenue totaled over $121 million, over $109 million of this (or 91%) came directly from public contributions. WalkAmerica is the March of Dimes’ largest source of revenue, generating more income than any similar fundraising event in the United States. In 1994, 850,000 people participated in more than 1400 communities to raise over $56.1 million. Since 1970, the event has raised approximately $611 million.

While March of Dimes does not indicate how much funding it gives to animal experiments, minimal estimates, drawing from its funding summaries, show that at least $1 million per year goes to fund animal experiments. March of Dimes literature states, “Fewer than 10% of the research projects we fund involve animals.” They do not report, or even keep track of, the number of animals used in these experiments per year. Species used include cats, dogs, primates, ferrets, guinea pigs, sheep, owls, mice and rats.

Over $225,000 over the last three years has gone to experiments to study visual development in the brains of cats, ferrets and hamsters. In one case, experimenters sutured one eye shut on a group of kittens, then killed them a year later to study what effect this had on their brains. Similar experiments were performed on adult cats who were raised in total darkness from birth to 4-6 months of age before being killed. Experiments were also conducted on hamsters and ferrets to investigate how alternative visual pathways are surgically destroyed. Scientific papers published on these experiments do not mention any clinical relevance to these studies.

In addition, March of Dimes has funded animal tests of many substances including alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, Valium-like drugs, benzene, and arsenite. The tests generally entail giving the substances to pregnant animals, then assessing the effects on their offspring. For example, intravenous nicotine and cocaine injections were given to pregnant rats to observe how this affected their offspring’s performance in a maze. Cross-species organ transplants have also been conducted, such as putting pigs’ organs into primates. Few of the primates survived more than a few days and several died within 1-2 hours.

Dr. Peggy Carlson, Director of Research at Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says, “These experiments take the wrong approach to tackling birth defects. A million dollars could go so much further if used for programs that directly benefit humans rather than for animal experiments whose results will not help human babies.”

Ironically, many such programs around the country are struggling for funding. These include: the Connecticut state birth defects surveillance program which has been defunct for five years due to lack of funds and only needs $100,000 to become operational; The Clark Street House of Mercy, a comprehensive housing, education, and counseling program for pregnant or parenting women and teens in Des Moines, IA that provides treatment for substance-abusing women; and Great Beginnings for Black Babies, a non-profit program that runs media campaigns in Los Angeles County to educate women on the dangers of using alcohol or drugs while pregnant, and the importance of early prenatal care.

Considering that 1.3 million women receive insufficient prenatal care each year and that up to 25% of all infant deaths could be prevented through adequate prenatal care, the issue of funding is crucial. Species differences — whether genetic, or in development rates in utero, or placenta formations, and other physiological differences — make comparisons between non-

human and human animals problematic; as do the variations in time, place, and dosage of the administration of a potential birth defecting agent. Furthermore, the stress imposed by animal handling, food or water deprivation, and restraint which are routine in all labs may have adverse effects on pregnancy and cause birth defects and other problems.

PCRM is encouraging the March of Dimes to redirect its funding from animal experiments to other methods that will help decrease birth defects, including studies of human populations, birth defect monitoring systems, developing test-tube studies that would more accurately predict a substance’s potential to cause birth defects, and social and educational programs that provide services. Cell cultures and test-tube studies are less expensive, faster, and more reproducible than animal tests, which cost about $60,000 per chemical. More resources are also needed to develop in vitro tests sufficiently.

At the end of April, PCRM will deliver letters from over 600 doctors nationwide to the March of Dimes corporate office in White Plains, NY, asking the foundation to shift its funding from animal experiments to human studies and intervention programs, and develop a plan to eliminate animal experiments. At the very least, The March of Dimes will be asked to report the extent of animal use in the experiments it funds, including cost, species and numbers of animals used, and descriptions of all current and planned animal experiments.

David B. Wasser is Media Director of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 5100 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Suite 404, Washington, DC 20016. Tel.: 202-686-2210. A non-profit organization, PCRM has over 3000 doctor-members and 60,000 non-physician members.


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