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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 9, 2006

Ends, Means, Rats, and Dogs

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Posted by Derek

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.

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Animal Testing


1. GC on May 9, 2006 10:59 PM writes...

As someone who enjoys his humor of questionable taste, I have to agree. The level of morbid humor expressed by most of the animal researchers I've seen pales in comparison to that of doctors in hospitals. Scientists just don't laugh at animal testing the way you'd expect from the dark-humor-loving sorts they tend to be. I've seen plenty of posters in the vein of "I didn't shoot Harry!" on the office doors of tenured professors and sundry labrats, but animal jokes are avoided without exactly being taboo. Nobody likes killing the rats, OK???

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2. Paul Hughes on May 10, 2006 2:13 AM writes...

I think a poster I saw over a decade ago sums this up nicely.

"Thanks to animal experimentation, these protestors can protest for an average of 10-15 years more"

I understand the motivation of animal lovers but these extremists are also the types that see black helicopters everywhere, think Bush was behind 911 and that we never landed on the moon. They generally have no scientific background or are ex-scientific hacks who for whatever reason couldn't make a real scientific contribution so have decided to try destroy the establishment that reminds them of their failure. Why else would some of these MDs etc come out on the side of the extremists. Try developing a safe drug without is 100% impossible.

Why is it that the people that didn't finish high-school biology think they know any better than anybody else about drug development and its cost/benefit analysis to mankind.

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3. Michael G on May 10, 2006 3:55 AM writes...

I think the whole debate can be summed up in saying, that if the animal rights protestors are so concerned about the use of animals in drug development, then they're more than welcome to come participate in early tox studies and similar assays. It would give a more reliable picture of if a drug's safe to go into humans anyway. I'm sure if they get a headache or any other illness they don't say "nature will cure me" so it shows that in the right situation they'll abandon their principles. Although, having seen pictures of a few of them, I can see that they don't make much use of toiletries and cosmetics which were tested on animals. Or even those not tested on animals!

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4. Kay on May 10, 2006 6:30 AM writes...

I think that it's important to admit that the main reason for seeking a replacement to animal testing is that much/most of ii is known not be predictive. We are wasting dollars (and animals too).

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5. RKN on May 10, 2006 10:18 AM writes...

I don't think it helps your argument to say "nobody likes sacrificing animals" or "it's expensive to manage an animal lab." I've personally witnessed plenty of cool indifference to the practice of animals being subjected to vivisection. As far as the attitude of a researcher goes, that one seems equally loathsome to "high fiving." And if anything, the fact that it's expensive seems a better reason to stop than to continue. It's analogous to expecting a rabid environmentalist to be swayed by BigOil's claim: "Hey, it's expensive to drill wells!" ;-)

Although I expect there is a wide distribution of positions on this issue, the root objection to using non-humans for medical research seems to be grounded in an ethic ala Pete Singer, whose position, so far as I understand it, is that vivisection on animals for the putative benefit of humans could be justified if and only if the same pain could be visited on human subjects for the same benefit. Implicitly, this ethic erases the hierarchical distinction of value between species that many of us have. I have to admit that I at least understand the ethic, without having actually adopted it myself.

However, like commenter Kay, I am deeply suspicious that the majority of animal model studies being conducted contribute little or nothing to the cause of human benefit.

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6. Ruth on May 10, 2006 10:36 AM writes...

Some rats I've worked with have more personality than some PETA protesters. I feel even worse about nonhuman primates used in research, as they are intelligent animal cousins. But I also have Alzheimer's in my family as well as a child with autism. I support the limited, humane use of animals until we have better alternatives.

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7. Demosthenes by day on May 10, 2006 10:59 AM writes...

Whenever I'm identified as working in the pharmaceutical industry and a person who is against animal testing starts to talk with me I usually start off the conversation by asking them to show me their Med-alert bracelet, tattoo, or card that refuses maedical treatment. Otherwise the person who takes the side of the no more animal testing is a hypocrite. When you consider that almost everything on a modern ambulance has been tested on animals the person who wants to deny future patients should start with themselves. Start by not using or benefitting from anything which was developed using animal testing. Start by doing yourself what you're asking the rest of society to do.
So far after asking 31 animal rights people for their official refusal of medical care document or bracelet I have yet to see one.
If you won't live your own position and can't offer an alternative then it would be best to tone down the stridency of your argument.

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8. Joe on May 10, 2006 11:56 AM writes...

OK no one is making Hollywood movies. But in the UK there is a pro-research campaign called "Pro-Test" that started up earlier this year around the new animal laboratory being built at Oxford University. The building of the lab has been subject to persistent and noisy opposition.

Remarkably, Pro-Test was started by a school student, and snowballed. The first public demonstration in February brought many hundreds onto the streets, out-numbering the "animal rights" crowd and giving effective voice to the hitherto "silent majority".

Pro-test is getting effective coverage. As you can see from google ( ) their purchase of GSK shares as a "gesture of solidarity" after the latest threats has been picked up e.g. by the BBC and Business Week. Other activity has included handing out donuts to the builders working on the lab - who have to put up with constant "animal rights" disruption.

The next demonstration is planned for the 3rd June, and the first one set a high standard to beat. Anybody who can make it to Oxford can find details at the Pro-test website:

For everybody else, please publicise the demonstration as widely as possible. When was the last time you had a chance to get out on the streets chanting "Stand up for science! Stand up for progress!"?

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9. D on May 10, 2006 11:59 AM writes...

Found this blog randomly. I'm also in the industry at a large pharma.

Most people don't realize that it's the government that requires animal testing. No pharma company really wants to do it for the many reasons people have stated above. It's expensive, and the PK in rats/mice/whatever is not necessarily predictive of what happens when you stick it into people.

There are also no computer models worth anything that even remotely address the issue.


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10. FinanceMan on May 10, 2006 1:54 PM writes...

Perhaps the logical conclusion is simply to stop experimenting with animals and instead use the crazy animal rights activists! Would speed the drug discovery process considerably since we wouldn't have to wait to see if efficacy and side-effects in animals would translte to humans. (just some dark humor)

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11. Chrispy on May 10, 2006 3:02 PM writes...

I do wish that we had better tests. The lack of predictive value in animal tests is laughable. Some of the new work in microdosing, where humans take a very small amount of radiolabeled compound, looks to me to be one of the best advances in drug discovery. Of course, before they took it they'd probably want to know how much it took to kill a rat/dog.

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12. David Fleck on May 10, 2006 9:59 PM writes...

Interesting to see the two sides talk past one another in the comments.

"No predictive value!"

"We have no substitutes!"

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13. Timothy on May 11, 2006 9:48 AM writes...

On campus I used to tell the PETA people that I'd gladly sell their kids to my friends in the chem lab, usually shut them up.

Sure, animal models have limited predictive power...but there aren't any good substitutes. So animal testing is better than all the other alternatives (no new drugs or putting untested compounds directly into people), which means I'm a fan and I'd see the movie.

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14. Scott S. on May 11, 2006 1:57 PM writes...

Perhaps there are no effective substitutes, but we should remember the sacrifice these animals, mice, rats, dogs, cats, chimps and other animals, have made for our health.

We should NEVER take this sacrifices for granted, or lightly, and their suffering and death should trouble us deeply.

Let us pray for the day where no animal, or human, suffers needlessly.

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15. tgibbs on May 11, 2006 4:30 PM writes...

If animal studies weren't predictive, they wouldn't be done. I can think of numerous occasions in my career when I suspected that an apparent anomaly was due to a species difference. In every case, I turned out to be wrong. Animals studies can and do mislead but they are right far more than they are wrong.

And while I hate to see suffering inflicted on research animals, it is worth noting that rodents are probably better treated in laboratories than in most other human endeavors. In our homes and businesses, we routinely poison them with anticoagulants, kill and maim them with mechanical devices, or maintain rodent-hunting predators whose methods of killing would most certainly not pass IACUC review.

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