The truth about animal testing

The use of animals in medical research is inevitable, but no one can deny that something needs to change.

Every summer, hundreds of thousands of women run the five-kilometre Race for Life to raise money for Cancer Research UK. They probably don’t like to think about it, but some of that money is spent on procuring animals for use in experiments.

The use of animals in medical research is inevitable. Every drug licensed for treatment has to be tested on animals. It’s not just a legal issue. Many of the cures we celebrate – and let’s remember that cancer is now more survivable than ever – were developed only because researchers were able to carry out experiments on animals.

In the 1990s, deaths from breast cancer dropped by nearly a third. Much of that success was due to the introduction of tamoxifen, a treatment that helps prevent breast cancer among those with a family history of the disease. The drug’s development involved research on rats and mice that explored how hormonal changes induce tumours.

Since its introduction, tamoxifen has been cited as part of the solution to animal experimentation: tests show that it kills human tumours grown in Petri dishes, demonstrating that such cell cultures are a good model for what happens in real patients.

Alternatives to animal testing are welcomed by all involved; this is not a zero-sum game. When the Home Office recently reported that the total number of animal testing procedures increased by 2 per cent in 2011, the campaigning group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) called it “another broken promise” from a government that had committed to reducing the numbers. In some ways, Peta is right. It would be a better world if alternatives to animal testing could be found sooner; we should applaud Peta for donating more than half a million pounds to labs trying to pioneer non-animal tests. But scientists are just as eager to get there.

Contrary to Hollywood stereotypes, scientists aren’t monsters. If you have ever received treatment for an ectopic pregnancy, some of the procedures involved were tested on rabbits in labs run by Robert Winston. Those rabbits, Winston says, were petted and stroked every day. Much of last year’s 2 per cent rise can be ascribed to a general increase in the levels of scientific research going on.

And not all of the reportable procedures are detrimental to animals’ well-being. Just putting an animal into any form of isolation – on its own in a cage – is classed as a “procedure” that must be reported. Breeding a genetically modified animal is also a procedure, whether or not the modification causes distress (most don’t).

There has been a rapid rise in the number of such breeding procedures because knocking out certain genes gives us an idea of how to find cures for diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

In plain sight

That is not to say there aren’t unpleasant things going on. Yet “substantial” procedures account for only 2 per cent of the reported experiments. This is why all sides are keen to see a review of Section 24 of the Animals Act. Currently, no one can find out anything about what kinds of experiments are going on without making a Freedom of Information request. This understandably makes animal rights advocates angry and it makes scientists look sinister.

Take the case of cats. The number of cat “procedures” rose by 26 per cent over the past decade. That seems shocking, but most of the increase was due to studies on nutrition – testing claims of pet food manufacturers, for instance. When the secrecy surrounding that kind of work can lead to bombs under your car and death threats routinely dropping through your letter box, no one can dispute that something needs to change.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

 

A lab worker displays a bald mouse used in medical research. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear