High noon at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party we call a Health Care Debate in this country -- some of us look up occasionally and wonder how we plummeted down this rabbit hole? Yet the lunatic debate in the bunny dugout has no beginning, middle or end. (This Mad Hatter's Tea Party bears about as much relation to the Boston Tea Party as twice-used teabags do to real tea.)
Let's follow the very nervous White Rabbit past the Mad Tea Table (so cuckoo that a public option program, designed to deliver health care to millions of Americans who have none is viewed with suspicion) -- and zip though the looking-glass into the upside-down world of other health care debates.
Lewis Carroll would have reveled in the caricature potential of the Grassleys and the Death Panellers -- not to mention Obama's Cheshire Cat grin in their direction... But let's back up to sources of "accepted wisdom" by which we understand health care. For example, the value of research involving animals. If you don't trust hidden agendas, think about this: the government pours billions (through the NIH, specifically, $15 billion of the current NIH discretionary budget of $30 billion is allocated for extramural research and an estimated 12 billion of that is for basic science, very predominantly animal research) into this supposedly "cutting edge" science. This translates into years and years of funding for lab research at universities and corporate labs that use animals as subjects -- is this money that might be spent on other types of research?
It's hard to imagine anybody enthusiastically supporting laboratory experimentation on living animals on the face of it -- but almost everyone is willing to support, if reluctantly, the vivisection of hundreds of thousands of living creatures (chimps, monkeys, dogs, mice) in laboratories yearly -- because people believe that animal research saves lives. But is this true? I have now heard arguments on both sides of this controversy.
I believe that we should listen first to the voice of Dr. John Pippin, Senior Medical and Research Advisor to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who has written extensively on this subject, providing strong evidence that counters the belief that laboratory experimentation on animals contributes to cures and saves human lives. Dr. Pippin notes that in fact it has occasionally led to medical disasters in the treatment of human patients.
For the lay person, it's difficult to look at the suffering of animals who are the subjects of research, whose bodies are torn apart and mutilated without anesthetic, who are injected with pathogens and carcinogens -- who live in cramped cages and do not breathe outside air or move freely or receive affection -- and to further imagine that their destruction may be a waste of life, laboratory time and (mostly NIH) money, which could be used to pursue real cures.
Research scientists are under great pressure to raise money to fund their own labs -- they rent from universities and colleges and they are constantly applying for NIH and other funding -- and, given their need to keep their labs afloat, often require increasing numbers of animals for their experiments. Thus, despite the desperate situation of domestic animal overpopulation that requires ongoing extermination of shelter and feral animals, there exist companies that bring more creatures destined to suffer into the world, to meet this demand. These companies breed normal and genetically-modified animals expressly for the purpose of experimentation and extermination in labs in corporate and university settings. All of these labs are "down the rabbit-hole," faraway from public knowledge, public supervision or scrutiny.
Dr. Pippin tells me that there was a moment when one of these animal suppliers had had second thoughts about animal testing. A while back, James Foster, the president of Charles River Laboratories told his shareholders that his corporation would begin investing in alternatives to animal testing. This, to some ears, may have sounded like an "Amazing Grace" moment, like the slave ship captain who saw the light and wrote the hymn -- a change of heart from a the head of a multi-billion dollar business.
The skeptical Dr. John Pippin did not believe what the seemingly repentant Prez Foster was putting forth. "I thought," Dr. Pippin said, "that CRL would still do just as much animal breeding and just add the alternatives portfolio -- in other words, diversify, then go where the money is. That is exactly what they have done, moving back now to even more animal breeding to meet the burst of demand for genetically-modified animals. It was a hopeful sign that dissolved in greed around the flavor of the month -- GM (genetically modified) mice."
Why does Dr. Pippin believe that animal testing fails to deliver cures for human diseases? He has been sounding the alarm about vivisection for twenty years, but started out on the other side of the debate. A former faculty member of Harvard Medical School and the Medical College of Virginia, he began his career in cardiology, conducting experiments on animals.
"My training in medicine was the same as everybody else's" he has said. "...If you're going to do any kind of research, you view the use of animals as not only fundamental, but essential." Pippin's research involved artificially creating heart attacks in dogs, to enable him to determine the efficacy of nuclear imaging agents in pinpointing damage to the dogs' hearts.
"The research went as we planned it, but the problem was that it didn't have any relevance for humans. Once we finished those studies, the same imaging agents went into human studies, and we had to do it all over again, learn it all over again." Dr. Pippin began checking out the research of his colleagues, and determined that they too, could not translate their experiments to humans.
"I realized," he says, "that the purpose of (animal-based) research, for most people doing it, was to create careers."
He goes on: "So I not only stopped, I began pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, and I've been trying to do that ever since." Dr. Pippin's job is now senior medical and research adviser for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) -- an organization of doctors and civilians who are fighting for humane and effective medical and research practices.
Dr. Pippin has often focused on the cost to human health of blind acceptance of "successes" in the lab. Here's an example: in March of 2006, six male volunteers in a clinical drug trial were rushed to a London hospital with severe headaches, convulsions and other symptoms. They were placed in intensive care; two went into a coma and all of them succumbed to multiple organ failure.
Just a few hours before, the men had been given a test drug, which was supposed to treat leukemia, as well as other autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. A German-manufactured drug, with the code name TGN1412, proven to be safe in mice, rats and monkeys, had been deemed OK to test on humans. Because initial human trials are generally very cautious, the men had been given a dose five hundred times less than the dose given to the monkeys.
All of the hapless volunteers survived, but not without permanent severe damage to their organs, caused by a drug that all previous animal testing had indicated was harmless. There was an inquiry by the British Healthcare Regulatory Agency. It was determined that the volunteers' severe reactions were not due to a lapse in established protocols or manufacturing errors or contamination, but to the effects of the drug in humans -- results not predicted in the animals.
The argument that we are, in fact, very similar genetically to mice and other animals -- an argument often put forward -- does not seem to guarantee similar reactions to drugs or other chemical substances or procedures.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 92 percent of all drugs that pass pre-clinical testing on animals go on to fail in human clinical trials -- either because of their toxicity or simple ineffectiveness. Of the remaining percentage, over half are later withdrawn from the market or re-labeled for side effects not noted in animal research. Some of these side effects are serious, even lethal.
There are several fundamental reasons animal "models" don't work to study human diseases and treatments, according to Dr. Pippin. First, he says, every animal handles drugs and toxins differently -- and one species does not predict for another species. Also, diseases in animals are "created" to mimic human diseases, but do so poorly. The susceptibility, disease course, outcomes and responses to treatments are widely variable among species.
The animal "models" for numerous diseases have been refuted and discredited by scientists themselves. This is true for diabetes, stroke, neurological diseases, immune diseases, and many other categories.
Dr. Pippin goes on to refine his argument to the "big business" "Disease du Jour" laboratory testing procedures for diabetes -- which I'll examine further in the next installment in this "White Rabbit" series. I hope to investigate statistics on the efficacy of diabetes/animal research. Then we'll hear some of the defenses of animal testing.
I'll also take a look at alternatives to animal research -- and "name a few names" down here in the rabbit-hole -- Alas, we've lost the White Rabbit temporarily -- let's hope that Charles River Laboratories didn't track him down! You all know where the red color in lipstick comes from, right?
NEXT: THE DIABETES DEBATE
With thanks to Dr. John Pippin of PCRM and also Best Friends magazine, September - October, 2007.