Animals In Medical Research

When Adam Bandt made opposing cuts to NHMRC grants a priority he received responses from some Greens members along the lines that if the cuts impacted on animal research they’d be happy to see them occur. These were clearly minority views within the party, but strongly held ones, and one of the people endorsing them stated it as fact that “it has been proved all research on animals is unnecessary, substitutes exist.”

Anyone who has done any investigation of the topic knows this is not true, but I was reminded of it by a particularly striking example this week. More of that later.

There is an entirely valid ethical arguement that we don’t conduct medical research on humans without informed consent of the subject (or in the case of young children, their parents) and so we shouldn’t on animals either. I don’t subscribe to this arguement, but I don’t think there is any logical basis for rejecting it. Once we did experiments on various marginalised groups without their knowledge. This is still done in the developing world but it is, and should be, illegal. In some cases the research was useless, but in some cases it probably produced results that saved far more lives than were harmed in the process. From a utilitarian point of view this might be considered acceptable, but few would defend it; certainly not me. As I said, I can see a strong case for extending this to animals.

However, we need to be clear this is a moral case, not one based on the belief that we have nothing to lose. There’s an awful lot of research that still can’t be one on collections of cells in test tubes. The example that reminded me of this comes from Otago, (yes an exception to my comments about the decline of New Zealand science) where A/Prof Margaret Vissers found that mice absorb five times as much vitamin C from kiwifruit as from the same amount of pure vitamin C.

This is very much an unexpected result, although Vissers found some very old research indicating similar things from the early years after vitamin C became available as a supplement in the 1930s. It’s also the sort of result you would never get without animals. The whole point is that it shows biology is more complex than we thought, so producing a simplified model of the digestive system in the lab, incorporating the previous assumptions, isn’t going to work.

Of course the research may not apply to humans. Mice normally make their own vitamin C, and like the majority of mammals don’t need to absorb it from their food. The study was done on mice missing the gene that allows them to make the vitamin themselves, so they do actually need to have it in their food. Perhaps these mice are different from humans in their absorption. Consequently, Visser is starting a trial to see if humans are the same.

Why not, you might say, skip the mice and go straight to testing humans? The problem is that such trials on humans are much, much harder. With mice you can control their diet exactly, ensuring that the mice eating kiwifruit and the mice taking powered vitamin C are getting exactly the same food from other sources. Very hard to do with humans, so Visser will be working on people who are known to have bad diets with low vitamin C. She’s hoping they won’t suddenly change their diets during the trial, but you can never be sure.

Having got a lead that a difference like this might exist it’s possible to design a trial that might work. However, this finding was a secondary result out of some other research Visser was doing, working on her theory that Recommended Daily Intakes of vitamin C are too low. In trying to do a similar study on humans she would have been desperate to control as many factors as possible, the off the cuff idea to give half her subjects fruit and half powder would have been a step too far.

Given that a lot of people still suffer from scurvy (even in the developed world) this work is potentially very significant. If humans similarly gain much more benefit from vitamin C in fruit form than from pills doctors need to know that. Moreover, Visser has only tried kiwifruit. Who knows whether all fruit are the same, or some actually enable us to absorb a higher proportion of the vitamin than others. And that’s all without getting to the original point of the research – that maybe we should be consuming more vitamin C than is currently recommended.

Getting to eat a lot of kiwifruit might sound like a pretty cushy job for a mouse, but all the testing that was done to examine their vitamin C levels in various organs must have been painful. Moreover, there’s no retirement home for old research rodents*. Life for them may not be nasty or brutish, but it’s certainly short. If you think animals have equal rights to humans, a far from ridiculous position to my mind, then this may not be justified whatever the benefits.

However, we need to make such a decision in the full knowledge of what we would be losing – vast quantities of knowledge that will save and improve millions of lives. Pretending there’s no price to pay is simply wrong.

* In most cases. At one point I shared my home with two rats that had been rescued from lethal injection when the trial they were taking part in came to an end. Life in their cage was pretty good for them, with an owner who loved them and made sure they were not only well fed but had an interesting environment to live in. However, I’d be fooling myself if I thought that more than a tiny proportion of lab rats were so lucky, although I’ve read that these days a lot of monkeys get such treatment after their lab career is over. I’d also note that the fact the rats were given a home by someone who conducted a lot of animal research should be a pause for those who think medical researchers don’t care about their animals’ conditions and are indifferent to suffering.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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