The Ethics of Using Laboratory Animals to Develop Medicines for Lifestyle Diseases

Pink pills

Clive Phillips

Humans advance through life with their accolade
of food and laboratory animals to sustain them,
with the former unfortunately increasing the need for the latter

It may be the ultimate expression of speciesism. People fall victim to the numerous addictions that pervade modern society — sugar, alcohol, tobacco, salt, saturated fats, to name but a few — and then expect medicines that have been developed through the use of other animals to sustain them when their bodies fail to cope. Diabetes, obesity, alcoholism, heart disease, cancer ― all of these non-communicable
diseases (NCDs) are promoted by our modern lifestyle. However, some people, when they get to an advanced state of decrepitude in old age, or in many cases middle age, are opting to forego the use of medicaments and their various side-effects and live out their natural lives naturally. Instead of relying on the better-late-than-never band-aids of medicaments developed with the use of animals, how much more effective would it be if preventative medicine and better education enabled people to live to their geriatric years, without becoming
incapacitated? This would benefit the people themselves, but it might not help in the financial health of the country.

Multinational companies increasingly control the production, processing and retailing of those very food products that are causing us to rely on animals to produce the medicines, and they also have a major control over governments through their importance to national economies. For example, in Australia, the recent merger of the multinational company, Cargill, Inc., with the beef processing giant, Teys Bros, created a company that can manage the entire beef food chain — from grain production to cattle carcase processing — for 1.5
million cattle per year. Globally, Cargill has sales revenues of US $120 billion per year and employs 130,000 people, the size of a small city.

The multinational companies have targeted our foibles, and the very appetites that evolved because of their importance for the maintenance of the human body — i.e. sugar for short-term energy, fat for long-term energy, salt for ionic homeostasis — are now exploited to poison our bodies. Food manufacturers use brain imaging to detect human responses in fine detail, such as the flavour burst produced by salt1 (with Cargill being the world’s largest producer of this commodity), and the prolonged aromatic and sensory flavours from high-fat cheeses are well known and exploited.

The human cost in NCDs arising from lifestyle problems is becoming well recognised, but the animal cost is rarely considered. It includes both food animals and laboratory animals, the latter being used to
produce the medicines to treat the NCDs. Last year alone, over 2000 articles which described the use of mice or rats to address the burgeoning problem of diabetes were published in scientific journals recognised by the Web of Science.2 Even if a conservative
estimate of 50 animals were used per study, and only half of the work that was done ended up being published in Web of Science journals, that still amounts to the use of 200,000 rodents and millions of dollars in research funding in one single year.1 Still more mice were used in the production of suitable genetic models that were susceptible to the disease. Whilst few can doubt that progress is being made in the diagnosis and treatment of this disease, if a fraction of the money that was used for these studies was directed toward educating the public about dietary restraint, then the people’s quality of life would improve and fewer research animals would be needed.

The servitude of our minds to the power of potentially-deficient nutrients means that we must satisfy our desires to the detriment of the survival of society. We may yet be able to think, plan and manage our way out of such a complex problem, but that requires strong and just government, better education for the good of society, and less reliance on animals in laboratories and on farms.

A relatively new and powerful tool in persuading people not to eat foods from animals that have been produced in inhumane conditions is to confront them with the reality of where their food comes from.
Cameras in abattoirs, on live-export ships, and in ports of embarkation and disembarkation from these ships, provide the images that many believe will ultimately change people’s way of thinking in relation to the sourcing of their food. The news media obviously believe that people have a hunger for these graphic images, or a conscience that can easily be aroused. Foods produced from animals that are themselves fed nutrient-rich diets, in intensive housing where opportunities for activity are limited, have high saturated fat content (30–50% of total fat content), as compared with the same animals in the wild.3 Generally, the higher the fat content in an animal’s body, the lower the proportion of fat that is polyunsaturated.4 The consumption of saturated fat in meats appears to be related to an increased risk of the major NCDs: i.e. obesity, diabetes and coronary heart disease,4 and public health nutritionists advocate a reduction of saturated fat in the diet, in order to avoid NCDs such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.5,6

It is only a matter of time before there is more widespread use of cameras in laboratories, which may demonstrate to people the level of animal suffering that accompanies the production of the drugs to help them cope with their NCDs. Of course, we have the Three Rs7 (or indeed Four Rs, as Catherine Tiplady recently argued for in PiLAS8) to help us provide laboratory animals with a respectable environment in which to live. However, another form of speciesism that pervades the discussions of animal ethics committees is the acceptance of inhumane standards for laboratory animals used for drug testing, because of the perceived benefit to society, or at least to individuals within society. No-one can deny the fact that individually-caged rats, a social species that is highly active in the wild, have an inherently low standard of welfare, even when compared to farm livestock in pens or cages, which at least have the benefit of the close proximity of conspecifics. Yet we tolerate the situation in the case of the rats, solely because they are used for scientific research that is seen as essential for our survival.

It is a sorry fact that, in today’s society, humans advance through life with their accolade of food and laboratory animals to sustain them, with the former unfortunately increasing the need for the latter.

Professor Clive Phillips
Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics
School of Veterinary Science
University of Queensland
Gatton 4343

1 Seo, H.S., Iannilli, E., Hummel, C., Okazaki, Y., Busch – hüter, D., Gerber, J., Krammer, G.E., van Lengerich, B. & Hummel, T. (2013). A salty-congruent odor enhances saltiness: Functional magnetic resonance
imaging study. Human Brain Mapping 34, 62–76.
2 Thomson Reuters (2013). Web of Science. New York,
NY, USA: Thomson Reuters. Available at: http://thomsonreuters.
products/a-z/web_of_science/ (Accessed 08.04.13,
via UQ Library Login).
3 Fine, L.B. & Davidson, B.C. (2008). Comparison of lipid and fatty acid profiles of commercially raised pigs with laboratory pigs and wild-ranging warthogs. South African Journal of Science 104, 314–316.
4 Siri-Tarino, P.W., Sun, Q., Hu, F.B. & Krauss, R.M. (2010). Saturated fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease: Modulation by replacement nutrients. Current Atherosclerosis Reports 12, 384–390.
5 Browning, L.M. & Jebb, S.A. (2006). Nutritional influences on inflammation and type 2 diabetes risk. Diabetes Technology & Therapeutics 8, 45–54.
6 Everitt, A.V., Hilmer, S.N., Brand-Miller, J.C., Jamieson, H.A., Truswell, A.S., Sharma, A.P., Mason, R.S., Morris, B.J. & Le Couteur, D.G. (2006). Dietary approaches that delay age-related diseases. Clinical Interventions in Aging 1, 11–31.
7 Russell, W.M.S. & Burch, R.L. (1959). The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique, 238pp. London, UK: Methuen.
8 Tiplady, C. (2012). Animal use in veterinary education
— The need for a Fourth R: Respect. ATLA 40, P5–P6

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