Unlocking the cage for animals and bringing in good science

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on March 10, 2018
The life that awaits them. Photo credit : Save the Chimps
Hercules and Leo at the New Iberia Reseach Center

The campaign to end the use of ‘guinea pigs’ in lab tests is gaining traction

When Hercules and Leo were “leased” for research to Stony Brook University by the New Iberia Research Center (University of Louisiana), the two chimpanzees were just a year old.

Nine years on, the fight in the United States to get these lab animals out of captivity to roam free in a sanctuary has not just garnered global support for non-human persons and their rights. It has also in a sense raised the bar on animal testing in terms of replacing the “guinea pig”, literally and figuratively, with alternative methods including technology.

“It’s near-impossible to do research on chimpanzees anymore in the US,” says Kevin R Schneider, Executive Director with the Nonhuman Rights Project, the group fighting for Hercules, Leo and many more. Even the National Institutes for Health (NIH) had said several years ago that it would not fund invasive research on chimpanzees, he says, explaining that such moves may not directly create rights for non-human animals, but they certainly pave the way.

Schneider was in Mumbai to bring to an Indian audience the fight to raise the legal status of animals from a “thing” to a “person with legal protection”. A poignant story that’s told in the documentary “Unlocking the cage”, which includes the story of Hercules and Leo.

Animals are used by drug companies to test the safety and toxicology of their products before it is exposed to humans. But campaigners for progressive science call for alternative methods in the interest of science that is good for both humans and animals.

Last month, the United States Food and Drug Administration’s Toxicology Working Group unveiled its Predictive Toxicology Roadmap, a discussion with the potential to reduce the engagement of animals in research.

Testing alternatives

“Today, novel methods such as organs on a chip or mathematical modelling are being developed for toxicity testing that are generating unique opportunities to improve our ability to quickly and more accurately predict potential toxicities and reduce associated risks,” said two FDA representatives, blogging recently on the issue. “We expect these advances will help us move products to market faster while preventing products with increased toxicological risk from ever reaching the market. Moreover, in many cases, these technologies are reducing the need for animal testing – advancing FDA’s long-sought goal of refining, reducing, and replacing testing on animals.”

Schneider hopes the FDA’s initiative “reduces the number of non-human animals used in medicine, as well as improve the safety and efficacy of human medicine.” It is even more significant, he says, “given that the FDA sets the rules for drug-testing protocols, and their view on these issues is generally regarded as authoritative.”

Besides, drugs work differently on humans and animals. Schneider points to aspirin, which kills dogs and cats and perhaps other non-human animals. “So, reliance on them would have prevented the release of aspirin; conversely, thalidomide, which caused grievous birth defects in humans, worked fine in non-human animal experiments; and the US spent decades trying to infect chimpanzees with AIDS, only to finally realise they don’t contract it the way we do.”

“Animal test may have been needed in the past, when our knowledge of science and medicine was crude,” says Schneider, adding it’s clearly unnecessary now. Hercules and Leo were used in research on how humans walk upright on two legs. In 2015, reports say, the research project had concluded. But the research chimpanzees, though retired, still await their sanctuary.

Published on January 05, 2018

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