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Do viable alternatives to animal experimentation yet exist?
Tuesday 9.00-9.30pm 18 February 2003

One of the biggest arguments of the animal liberation groups is that animal models are not very useful or realistic, and that alternatives are now being designed which could do the job just as well. So what are they? Can they really tell us what we need to know? Will we always, ultimately, only feel safe if we test drugs on animals. We may conclude that in a few years we really won’t need animals for experiments any more, or we may feel that these arguments are not backed up by the evidence. Graham Easton looks for evidence from both sides of the fence.

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A black and white case for banning animal testing?

‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’
OscarWilde (the Importance of Being Earnest 1895)

For many centuries animals have been used to explore the physiology of humans and to 'advance' the course of medical science. But a considerable number of scientists now question whether there is any real value in using animal models to predict what happens in humans. Differences between species, in their physiology or responses to drugs, may render animal experiments redundant or misleading. For instance, opponents of animal research frequently cite the drug thalidomide as an example of a medicine that was thoroughly tested on animals and showed its teratogenic effect only in humans. Similarly, penicillin would not have been used in patients had it first been administered to guinea pigs, because it is inordinately toxic to this species. Morphine dopes rats but excites cats and there are many more examples.

Those in favour of animal experimentation counter by saying that scientists never tested thalidomide in pregnant animals until after foetal deformities were observed in humans. Once they ran these tests, researchers recognized that the drug did in fact cause foetal abnormalities in rabbits, mice, rats, hamsters and several species of monkey. They also claim guinea pigs respond to penicillin in exactly the same way as do the many patients who contract antibiotic-induced colitis, when placed on long-term penicillin therapy. In both guinea pigs and humans, the cause of the colitis is infection with the bacterium Clostridium difficile.

Somebody is twisting the truth to win the argument. There is a great deal of debate and a large amount of ill informed outrage on both sides. And, in a time where the tide of public opinion is turning against animal experimenters, should we reject animal models out of hand in favour of what some see as higher risks but a lower ‘yuk’ factor?

Rarely Pure and Never Simple aims to get to the scientific truth behind the bluster.

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