Why animal research is bad science

The government is wrong to support vivisection - and not only because of the suffering caused to non

The government is determined to ensure the expansion of animal research, arguing that investment, jobs and medical breakthroughs depend on it. It's a view that the science minister, Lord Sainsbury, and a coalition of powerful drug companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Pfizer, share - as does the Home Secretary, David Blunkett. In the face of protests that have halted the construction of an Oxford laboratory where animal experiments were to take place, Blunkett is proposing new laws to crack down on "animal rights extremists". He seems more concerned about the harassment of a handful of researchers than about the industrial-scale infliction of pain and death on more than two million living, feeling animals, including 4,000 experiments on non-human primates last year.

Yet some scientists doubt that vivisection can provide accurate models of human diseases and treatments at all. They point out that drug therapies can have vastly different effects on different species. Strychnine, for example, kills people but not monkeys, and belladonna is deadly to humans yet harmless to rabbits.

We have witnessed many tragic consequences of blind faith in animal testing. The anti-rheumatic drug Opren killed 76 people in Britain and caused serious illness to 3,500 others, despite having been declared safe after seven years of animal research. Likewise, thousands of people with heart trouble suffered adversely after taking the animal-vetted drug Eraldin. Subsequent experimentation has failed to find a single species that reacts to Eraldin in the same way as humans do. Undeterred, the big pharmaceutical corporations have exploited public fears concerning life-threatening diseases such as cancer and HIV to demand more money for animal experiments and to oppose animal welfare legislation restricting their activities.

The battle against HIV provides a classic example of the pitfalls of vivisection. Protease inhibitor drugs have made a major contribution to cutting the death rate; enabling many people with the virus to live a more or less normal life. HIV infection has been transformed from a death sentence into a manageable condition.

The initial development of these highly effective anti-HIV therapies was, however, seriously compromised by reliance on animal testing. In one of the biggest medical scandals of recent times, there was a four-year delay in the clinical trials of protease-inhibitor treatments. This may have contributed to the needless deaths of tens of thousands of people worldwide.

In 1989, researchers at the pharmaceutical giant Merck, Sharp & Dohme (MSD) were working on a promising protease drug. Development was going well until the scientists decided to test the new therapy on dogs and rats. They all died. According MSD's former vice-president of worldwide basic research, Bennett M Shapiro, the company "stopped development" of its most promising protease inhibitor. MSD presumed the drug would have the same lethal effect on humans. The result? Research on a potentially life-saving treatment was halted in 1989, and clinical trials of a new protease drug, Crixivan, did not start until 1993.

This delay was confirmed by one of MSD's senior researchers, Emilio Emini. Writing in Washington Post Magazine, the investigative reporter Stephen Fried revealed how reliance on animal data caused MSD to abandon its first protease inhibitor: "It did not take long for the drug to crash. 'This is not going to work,' the toxicologist said when he brought Emini the news about the eight dying dogs. The rats weren't doing any better. Merck's drug had the nasty habit of shutting off the bile flow to the liver. Emini felt that if the animal test results were that severe, it was unethical to even do the study on humans . . . So there went four years."

MSD admits that animal studies were not used in the primary research that led to the invention of the follow-up protease inhibitor, Crixivan. Based on the knowledge that HIV is a uniquely human disease, MSD scientists focused on studying the structure of HIV and its interaction with human cells. Designed on computers, the protease drug was safety-tested using non-animal methods.

According to Shapiro: "Animal tests were neither needed, nor used, to explore the ability of protease inhibitors to block the growth of the Aids virus . . . the target action was already well understood and could be evaluated before the clinical trials using computers, cell culture and biochemical assays."

This looks like a tacit admission that animal studies were not scientifically necessary for the development of protease drugs; and that, for the primary research, non-animal methods were able to provide reliable data.

It was only when MSD decided further to test the new drug on dogs and rats that it ran into trouble. All died of liver failure.

As we now know, protease inhibitors do not have the same fatal consequences for humans. On the contrary, they have dramatically improved the lives of people with HIV.

These setbacks in the development of anti-HIV treatments highlight the scientific flaws of animal-based medical research. Vivisection can produce data that is inapplicable to humans.

Instead of backing the expansion of animal labs, John Prescott and Lord Sainsbury might help medical science more effectively by funding the development of alternatives - including cell, tissue and organ banks for testing the toxicity of new drugs, and virtual-reality supercomputers to simulate the workings of the human body and the effects of innovative therapies.

A majority of the diseases we suffer are unique to our species. Cures are most likely to be found by studying the physiology of human beings, not other animals.