On Sept. 18, former Beatle, Paul McCartney presented an award in honor of his wife, Linda, who died last year of breast cancer. Unfortunately, the award was presented at a special event sponsored by PETA–People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The irony of the association of McCartney with PETA is startling. McCartney says he is committed to the fight against cancer, but PETA has for years led the assault against the use of animals for food and medical research. Animals are essential to the development of pharmaceuticals and devices which prevent and cure diseases- including cancer.
Studies with animals contribute to the basic understanding of how all living organisms function. Such research has provided the scientific knowledge that significantly increased life expectancy, and improved quality of life by easing pain and suffering.
Biomedical researchers strive to gain scientific information about life processes in the most efficient and ethical manner. Data from human research are obviously the most relevant to problems of human health and disease. Indeed, human clinical studies are integral to the demonstration of product safety and efficacy. However, before conducting human studies on the natural history of disease, or exposing humans to untried surgical procedures, generic medications, or experimental devices, it is essential to gain information in other ways. In fact, strict ethical and legal considerations control biomedical research and require that human studies be designed based on the results of animal and other laboratory research.
Did the star-studded Hollywood crowd that joined McCartney last week at PETA’s celebration know that virtually every major medical discovery in the past century resulted from animal studies?
Some outstanding historic contributions of animal research to biomedical advances include:
* Understanding the circulation of blood — In 1622, William Harvey used worms, insects, dogs and other species, to discover that blood flows through veins and arteries in the body.
* The discovery of anesthesia — In 1846, William Morton found that ether could be used as an anesthetic. This enabled doctors to perform surgery, that would otherwise send patients into shock or kill them. Most of his experiments were performed on birds.
* Bacteria and disease — Robert Koch demonstrated the relationship between bacteria and disease by studying anthrax in sheep and cattle, in l870. He later demonstrated that the same bacillus caused anthrax in humans, thereby discovering how tuberculosis was transmitted.
* Insulin — Frederick Banting and Charles Best’s experiments, performed in l922 on dogs, demonstrated that using animal insulin can relieve diabetic symptoms, and thus keep animals without a functioning pancreas alive. Further studies showed that using animal’s insulin can sustain humans with diabetes.
* Cardiac transplants — Christiaan Barnard first tested dogs and other animals before performing the first human heart transplant in 1967.
The activities and arguments of both the scientific community, PETA and its Hollywood advocates, require Americans to make essential decisions concerning the use of animals in biomedical research. The desire to ensure minimal pain for research animals and the commitment to finding alternatives to animal use are commendable. This appeals to the public, researchers and legislators as well as prominent celebrities.
However, when concern for laboratory animals supersedes the development of techniques to improve the well-being of humans, society as a whole will suffer the consequences. We must achieve a balance between treating laboratory animals humanely and conducting biomedical research appropriately. It is only in utilizing scientific research methods, that by definition make use of every technique available to conduct experiments efficiently, that we may hope to prevent, treat and cure human diseases-like the one that led to the premature death of Linda McCartney.