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October 1995
Behind Locked Doors: The Failure of Animal Models
By Marjorie Cramer, M.D., F.A.C.S.



Despite animal research’s dubious past value, the public is often warned that animal experiments will be necessary to control today’s most feared diseases, such as AIDS and Alzheimer’s. Regarding AIDS, this claim is particularly suspect, because only humans develop AIDS from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and all animal “models” of AIDS differ fundamentally from the human condition. Animal models of AIDS fail to address the essential issue of co-factors (such as diet, exercise, lifestyle, drug use, etc.) in the development of the disease. Progress against AIDS has derived from human clinical investigation and in vitro studies of the virus itself. Indeed, some human vaccine trials have been performed without encouraging animal data because it is recognized that animals cannot reliably predict which AIDS vaccines will work.

Similarly, only humans develop Alzheimer’s. The many animal “models” that exhibit some of Alzheimer’s features are like line drawings to depict people. The superficial similarity does not constitute a valid model from which extrapolations can be made.

Another telling example is animal models of stroke, in which artificially induced brain blood-vessel occlusions have resulted in conditions which do not meaningfully resemble human strokes. According to neurologist David Wiebers, the dozens of animal “models” of stroke may impede rather than advance stroke management.

While all animal models are problematic, animal models of mental disorders are particularly compromised because interspecies communications difficulties undermine attempts to determine the animal’s mental state. Not surprisingly, all major drugs affecting mental states and cognition have been discovered through clinical investigation, usually serendipitous observations of side-effects of existing drugs. Nevertheless, animal models of mental disorders continue to receive huge financial support.

Animal experimenters, exploiting the general public’s ignorance of medical history and the process of medical discovery, have convinced most people that animal experimentation is required for medical progress. The public is largely unaware of what happens behind the locked, well-guarded laboratory doors. Experimenters typically paint a rosy picture, assuring the public that animals are treated humanely in laboratories. However, all animal experimentation involves suffering — often from the experimental manipulations themselves, always from confinement, social deprivation, and other aspects of the unnatural and stressful laboratory environment.

The claim by animal experimenters that animals are used only when absolutely necessary and that numbers used are minimized, seems to require that the public engage in wishful thinking. Many experimenters have made a career of animal experimentation and are very unlikely to procure funding doing other forms of research.

Although animal experimenters claim to promote “animal welfare,” they have opposed all legislative efforts to significantly improve conditions for animals used in experiments. For example, as a consequence of their efforts, 90 percent of animals in laboratories, including mice, rats, and birds, are totally unprotected by law. A 1993 federal court ruled that the 1985 Animal Welfare Act requires coverage for these animals, but this has been appealed.

Assurance that strict regulations protect animals in laboratories from “unnecessary suffering” are hollow because the federal regulations clearly place the welfare of the animals in the hands of the experimenters. Most oversight rests with institutional animal care and use committees (IACUCs) but they are run by animal experimenters. Hoping that people who regularly harm animals will treat them “humanely” is unrealistic. Occasionally, genuine animal advocates have been asked to serve, but they can be outvoted easily, and most have resigned in frustration. Many animal advocates have conceded that IACUCs serve more to protect experimenters from public scrutiny than to protect animals.

In summary, animal experimenters have presented the public with a distorted view of medical history and of the process of medical discovery. Although animal experimentation is inherently unsound, not all of it is totally irrelevant to humans. It may sometimes facilitate, but it is not necessary for, medical progress. Part of the overall cost to people is the reality that worthless experiments siphon off money that could better be spent on prevention and treatment. If we choose to apply utilitarian principles, we must weigh the cost of animal experimentation — to humans in terms of billions of dollars spent annually and the deleterious effects of misleading information and to animals in terms of the tens of millions killed annually and their immense suffering — against its marginal, occasional benefits.

Marjorie Cramer, M.D., F.A.C.S. is a surgeon and member of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. She is Clinical Associate Attending Physician at Saint Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center, New York City and Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery, New York Medical College. She lives in Brooklyn.


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