Mon, Jan 06, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Animal testing is a flawed model

By Kenneth Litwak

Science teaches us to always ask questions.

An answer should never be accepted unless there is abundant evidence to prove its veracity.

This very principle has guided the scientific process through generations of research. It was this principle that caused me to rethink and ultimately repudiate my nearly two decades in animal research.

I started doing animal research, like so many of my colleagues, with the presumption that my research was somehow going to save lives.

I was uncomfortable with using animals to simulate human conditions, but I believed the benefits outweighed the harm that I was causing to the animals. I believed that as a veterinarian, I would be best able to understand the animal condition and provide the best care possible.

There were many proud moments in those years. I had a tremendous sense of accomplishment after successfully defending my dissertation.

Whenever I worked with the many engineers and surgeons, as they developed artificial organs, I felt as if I were on the very edge of medical advancement.

The first time I saw someone who was alive thanks to an artificial heart that I had helped test still remains one of best moments in my career.

In the beginning, there was a scientific question: How could the animal model be improved to better simulate the human condition?

Again, I believed that as a veterinarian, I would best be able to understand how to create a disease in the animal that would sufficiently mimic the human disease, without unduly harming the animal.

I carefully monitored and treated the animals to minimize any pain. I did what I could to improve their conditions.

In retrospect, I was fooling myself. The similarities between a human disease and an artificially manufactured animal disease are akin to a plastic lawn flamingo and the real bird; they are both pink, but any closer examination reveals how truly different they are.

Then came the realization that no amount of improvement and no amount of transformation could ever make an animal disease model be anything but the palest reflection of the human condition.

It was at that moment that I was able to step back and understand how animal research has misinformed medicine. By focusing on disease models that look similar, but are very different, science has forgotten to ask the questions.

Those questions necessarily make us uncomfortable. Any time we are forced to consider that our assumptions are wrong, it is difficult.

Animal research is built on a pyramid of assumptions. It is assumed that if humans and animals have the same gene, it has the same triggers and same actions.

It is assumed that artificially created heart failure in a dog will inform our ability to manage heart failure in people.

It is assumed that when a rat becomes diabetic after being fed a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet, it can be used to improve our ability to treat the condition in people.

At first glance, all of those seem reasonable.

Each describes an animal model that is being used to test new human therapies.

Each of those models, and every other artificially constructed animal model of human disease, are built upon so many assumptions that the end results only serve to mislead medical therapy.

If heart disease in humans develops over decades, why is it assumed that we will learn how to treat the condition based upon results of a dog that was normal one day and in heart failure the next?

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