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Report for the Jerusalem Post on the World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences
    by Dr. Andre Menache

The city of Baltimore is not only a historic American city on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay; it also hosted the first World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences from November 14 to 19, 1993. Organised by the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, and attended by nearly 700 academic and industrial and research scientists, as well as representatives from government and industry, the goal of the congress was to develop a realistic understanding of the validity and status of alternatives to laboratory animals in education, research and safety testing.

Over the last 10 years, there has been an intensive effort to find alternatives to whole-animal testing of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, chemicals and household products. It has been estimated that animal experimentation world-wide has decreased by 30-50% in the last 15-20 years, due to reduction and replacement techniques. So for example, genetic engineering techniques are largely used today to test vaccines in place of whole animals, and insulin production is standardised today without a need for animals.

From a public point-of-view, cosmetics experiments are probably regarded as being the least necessary in terms of a need to carry out any further animal tests. Here indeed, major advances have been made in the fields of eye and skin irritancy tests, where human cell systems can now be used to replace the traditional rabbit experiments. While eye and skin irritancy tests in fact represent local-effect toxicity tests, about which there appeared to be a general consensus of opinion between various scientists at the conference, systemic (whole-body) toxicity exposed a significant divergence of opinion between some of the scientists. Whereas some argued that cell systems could not be used to predict systemic toxicity, others held a diametrically-opposing view. This latter group, however, produced impressive scientific data, based on a correlation study involving cell systems and human forensic results obtained from hospital records.

The area in which the need for animals has dropped most dramatically would appear to be in the pharmaceutical directory (pharmacopeia) of the various international communities. The spokesman at the congress for the European Pharmacopeia estimated that the statutory requirement for animal tests by the year 2000 would be essentially nil, with the possible exception of certain vaccine potency studies. If, as intended at the congress, global harmonisation takes place between the various statutory bodies, then the US Pharmacopeia and the Japanese Pharmacopeia should soon follow suit.

A major breakthrough in scientific progress has been made possible by the ability to now grow and culture human cells. Methodologically speaking, human cells more closely resemble human beings than do animal cells, which means that the results obtained from tests using human cells will be more reliable and more predictive for human studies than were previous animal cells. The only problems encountered so far with human cells are those associated with culture technique and the availability of human donor organs and tissues. While the former problem is rapidly being overcome thanks to sophisticated technology, the latter problem needs to be addressed with due consideration to the issue of patients' rights. Most human cells are derived from transplant organs which are unsuitable as donor organs, making the supply of human tissue to tissue banks rather limited at this stage, but not problematic from a moral point-of-view. Another source of human tissue is the spontaneously-aborted human foetus. However, in this instance, it would be necessary to provide a legal framework involving informed consent before such tissues could be used.

Another interesting development has taken place in the US in recent years, in the light of the increasingly questionable scientific validity of animal tests, especially in the field of consumer safety. In a discussion entitled: "The erosion of acceptability of animal toxicity tests in the courtroom", it was stated that courtroom judges in the US have increasingly found animal data to be "untrustworthy" in products liability litigation, indicating a major move away from reliance on animal studies for this purpose.

Thus it would appear that animal experimentation is slowly, but gradually being replaced by far more sophisticated methods of biomedical research, involving human cells, advanced laboratory techniques as well as computer simulations, in all of the three major fields: education, research and testing.

In 1962 scientists at the University of Oklahoma described the effects of LSD on a male elephant called Tusko. They wanted to see if LSD induces "musth", a condition in which elephants become violent and uncontrollable. The dose was calculated from the amount that puts cats in a rage. When Tusko received the injection, he began trumpeting, then stopped and swayed, unable to stay upright. His mate tried to support him, but the animal collapsed and went into convulsions. He was dead within two hours. Conclusion: elephants are particularly sensitive to LSD. (West et al., Science, 1962, 1100-1103.)

This cruel and entirely senseless experiment, one of endless others perpetrated in the name of science, brings home one point: each species reacts differently to a given drug.

Aspirin poisons cats; rabbits can eat freely the leaves of deadly nightshade; the intestinal treatment drug haloxon is 100 times more toxic to geese than hens, etc, etc.

One of the few studies that examined the differences in species reactions, found only a 5-25% correlation between harmful effects in people and the results of animal experiments (R. Heywood in "Animal Toxicity Studies: Their Relevance to Man", Quay Publishing, 1990.)

Obviously, there are cases where people react similarly to an experimental species, but this can only be known after the fact. Sometimes, animal researchers spend decades trying to introduce effects in animals that are already known in people, such as the carcinogenic effect of arsenic that was recognized in the 19th century. Animal testing of arsenic began in 1911, but as recently as 1977, no evidence of carcinogenicity could be found in non-human species. Finally, in the late 1980s, scientists managed to produce cancer in animals. It took the greater part of a century to "prove" something in animals, that was already known in humans! Is there a point?

In 1983 the drug company Pfizer carried out a study to test the efficiency of animal tests. Human findings were compared with experimental data from rats and mice for all chemicals known to cause cancer in people. In most cases animal tests had given the wrong answers. The report concluded that we would have been better off to toss a coin! (D. Salsburg, Fundamental & Applied Toxicology, 1983, vol. 3, 63-67.)

In the face of all evidence, animal tests continue. Billions continue to be spent; indeed, money is the main reason for animal toxicology tests to this day.
 

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