Many readers will have heard of the years-long campaign in England against Huntingdon Life Sciences, a research animal breeding and testing company. (These tug-of-war articles from Wikipedia on HLS and the campaign against it are detailed overviews, as well as a good example of that site's simultaneous strengths and weaknesses).
Now shareholders of GlaxoSmithKline, one of Huntingdon's customers, are getting anonymous letters from activists, threatening them with release of (unspecified) personal information if they don't sell their shares. These are similar tactics to the ones these groups used when HLS was trying to list on the Hew York Stock Exchange last year. You'd think that these attacks would have slowed down after the recent convictions of several anti-Huntingdon activists for terrorist activities, but apparently not.
In that case, names and addresses of researchers and investors were listed on a web site as well, but the defendants claimed that they had nothing to do with the violence and harassment that often followed. This defense was undermined by the evidence of their own statements, some posted on the web and some caught on videotape, friendly things like "The police can't protect you!"
Now, if anyone has been writing passionate, outraged books and screenplays about the researchers who've been carrying on through all this, I've missed them. That's because no one likes the idea of animal experimentation - it's not going to sell popcorn at the multiplex, that's for sure. And, to be frank, it's not like those of us who design, order, and carry out the experiments are high-fiving each other about how many rats we've gone through, either.
It's true: I don't actually like the fact that every successful modern drug has risen to its place on top of a small mountain of dead animals. But not liking doesn't keep it from being true, and not liking it doesn't mean that I have an alternative, either. I don't. What the animal rights campaigners - the more rational ones, anyway - don't seem to realize is that tens of millions of dollars are waiting for the person who can come up with a way of not using so many mice, rats, and dogs. (The less rational ones wouldn't care even if they knew).
They're expensive, you know, animals are. We don't just have them running around in rooms with a bunch of straw on the floor. They live in facilities that are expensive to build and expensive to maintain, and you have to hire a lot of people whose only job is to take care of them. The anti-testing people seem to have visions of drug company employees cackling at the thought of getting to use more animals, when the truth is that we'd dump them in a minute if we could.
But here's the hard part: we can't. Not for now, and not for some time to come. We don't know enough biology to do it. As it stands, if you were able to model every relevant system in a rat, well enough to use your model for predictive screening, you'd have basically built a rat yourself. We get surprised all the time when our compounds go into animals, and every time it happens, it shows how little we really know.
No, the system we have isn't pretty, and it sure isn't cheap, but there's nothing yet that can replace it. In the meantime, the rats die or the people do. I don't have a hard time choosing.