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Introduction: Progress in the Animal Research War

Some years ago, Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize–winning science journalist, nailed the divide between scientists who conduct research on animals in the hope of advancing medical knowledge and people who object to that work for being immoral and inhumane. They are “like two different nations, nations locked in a long, bitter, seemingly intractable political standoff,” she wrote in her 1994 book, The Monkey Wars. The two sides certainly have been like nations locked in a long, bitter standoff. That standoff has seemed intractable. But when Blum talked to people on both sides, she found glimmers of hope—a few individuals willing to listen to one another and find common ground. “When they can be freely heard,” she concluded, “then we will have progressed to another place, beyond this time of hostilities.”

Today, while we are not yet beyond hostilities, we have progressed to another place. Perspectives on the use of animals for biomedical research are changing in fundamental and profound ways. Scientists still depend on animals for a wide array of research, ranging from learning about disease processes to testing the safety and effectiveness of new drugs and, most recently, to finding ways to grow replacements for damaged body parts. But through new initiatives, researchers are seeking ways to greatly reduce the number of animals used. Particular concern has focused on the ethical justification and scientific necessity of research on chimpanzees and other primates. The longstanding view that one either supports medical progress (thus endorsing the status quo of animal research) or animal welfare (thus settling for fewer lifesaving treatments in exchange for ending or drastically reducing animal-based research) is giving way to more nuanced thinking that upholds the values of both medical progress and animal welfare while promoting the use of alternatives to animal research.

The problem is that nuanced thinking has not had a voice. Many scientists who work on animal research have “complex views” about it, concluded the journal Nature after polling readers on the subject a few years ago, but they are reluctant to express their views because of fear of recrimination from animal activists, as well as pressure from colleagues to remain silent on the subject. Susan Kopp, a veterinary professor and codirector of Yale University’s animal ethics study group, put it this way in a discussion with some of us from The Hastings Center: There are few “safe forums” where researchers and others involved and interested in animal research can have a civil discussion about ethical issues—where different perspectives can be shared and respected.

In November 2011, The Hastings Center held such a forum at Yale University, with generous support from the Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Fund and invaluable guidance from colleagues at the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics. We invited people with different areas of expertise and different points of view for a frank discussion about the state of the debate over the use of animals in biomedical experiments—the ethical concerns, the scientific arguments for and against using animals in particular kinds of studies, and the availability of alternative models that might replace whole animals in some research. The goal was to harness their knowledge and capture their exchange of ideas to produce educational resources that would be useful to multiple audiences: biomedical researchers, students in biomedical research and law, members of institutional animal care and use committees, policy-makers, and anyone else who follows animal research issues. This special report is one of those resources; the other is our Web site (http://animalresearch.thehastingscenter.org), a hub of information that includes this report, along with other major reports, significant news, scholarship on animal studies, and links to groups engaged with biomedical research and the development of models to replace animals in that research.

Most of the commentaries were written by participants in the workshop on the topics of their presentations and were enriched by the conversations that occurred afterward. Several of the commentaries were also informed by major news announced a month after the meeting took place: the Institute of Medicine’s groundbreaking report that concluded that “most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary” and recommended that government-funded research on chimpanzees be sharply cut—a recommendation that Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, promptly accepted. These developments were highly significant because they concerned perhaps the most controversial of all animal experiments—those involving humans’ closest relative. The United States is one of only two countries in the world that still permits invasive research on chimpanzees.

Three of the commentaries concern research involving chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates. In “Raising the Bar,” Jeffrey Kahn, the director of the IOM committee that wrote the chimpanzee report, assesses its implications. Despite its limitations, which he cites, Kahn concludes that implementing the report’s criteria “will impose the strongest restrictions to date on the use of any animal species for research in the United States, a major change in animal research policy in general.” In “The Case for Phasing Out Primate Research,” Kathleen Conlee and Andrew Rowan, of The Humane Society, see the new restrictions on chimpanzee research as an opportunity for the United States to lead an international effort to take a hard look at the ethical issues and the scientific necessity for experiments with all nonhuman primates. D. Eugene Redmond, Jr., argues forcefully that some research on nonhuman primates remains essential. In “Using Monkeys to Understand and Cure Parkinson Disease,” the focus of his work as a physician and researcher at Yale, Redmond agrees that alternative models are desirable but asserts that—for the time being, at least—there can be no breakthroughs in treating this disease without research on monkeys (he uses a species that is not endangered).

Fortunately, the outlook for alternatives to animal models is brighter in other areas of biomedical research, especially toxicity testing. In “No Animals Harmed: Toward a Paradigm Shift in Toxicity Testing,” Joanne Zurlo, of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, reports on the federal government’s commitment to start replacing whole animals with systems based on human cells to assess the toxicity of tens of thousands of environmental and industrial chemicals and drugs. Noting that toxicity tests of pharmaceuticals in rats predict human toxicity only 43 percent of the time, Zurlo thinks that the new systems will be more relevant to humans, work faster, and cost less than animal models. She calls this paradigm shift “the most significant force to date leading to the ultimate elimination of animal use for biomedical research and testing.”

Despite the progress toward that goal and the strong support for it, most of the commentators here do not think that it can realistically be achieved any time soon—at least, not if we remain committed to answering important basic questions about ourselves and other animals and developing treatments and cures for conditions that cause suffering. That “if” is central to the commentary by Joel Marks, codirector of Yale’s animal ethics study group. He constructs a philosophical argument in which he concludes that the ends—basic and applied biomedical research—do not justify the means—causing animals to suffer and die. For Marks, nothing short of full replacement of animals in research is justifiable. But several of the writers identify concrete ways that everyone with a role in animal research can improve the welfare of laboratory animals. Bernard Rollin discusses how researchers can to do more to provide laboratory animals with the best possible living conditions compatible with their natures. Susan Kopp describes recent efforts to train veterinarians and lab technicians in humane animal care that are helping to provide the conditions that Rollin has in mind. Larry Carbone challenges researchers to justify their selection of particular kinds of animals in proposed experiments by showing that the information they seek is valuable and could not be obtained by other means. Stephen Latham suggests ways U.S. laws that govern animal experimentation can be amended to reduce unnecessary animal suffering. One example is to permit institutional animal care and use committees to explicitly balance harms to animals against the hoped-for scientific gains when evaluating research proposals. To those who fear that giving IACUCs this power could inhibit worthwhile research, Latham notes that institutional review boards are already empowered to engage in such balancing in human subjects research, “and this has not caused research to grind to a halt.”

Given that our aim with this project was to produce educational resources, we labored to make the language absolutely clear. That proved easier said than done, since animal research ethics is notable for chameleonlike terminology. The word “alternatives,” for example, can mean research models that replace whole animals, “lower” animals that replace “higher” animals, or new ways of doing things in order to inflict less pain and suffering. Therefore, we have included a glossary of terms used in discussions of animal research ethics. And when the writers use ambiguous terms like “alternatives,” they clarify what they mean. In addition to being freely heard, the “nations” grappling with ethical and scientific disputes over animal experimentation must also be clearly understood if they are to progress to a place beyond hostilities and toward constructive solutions.