If you want to know how to cure diseases in humans, you want to test experimental treatments on whatever else is most similar. For years scientists have tested their hypotheses on non-human animals, like mice and rats. But extrapolating the results of medical and other scientific research from non-human animals to humans is a dubious undertaking at best. Other animals’ biologies are not the same as ours. They have similarities, often more than we like to admit, but not enough to draw reliable conclusions about the safety of medical interventions in human beings.
As reported by the American Anti-Vivisection Society, “Acetaminophen, for example, is poisonous to cats but is a therapeutic in humans; penicillin is toxic in guinea pigs but has been an invaluable tool in human medicine; morphine causes hyper-excitement in cats but has a calming effect in human patients; and oral contraceptives prolong blood-clotting times in dogs but increase a humanís risk of developing blood clots. Many more such examples exist.”
Not only are the results of animal experiments of limited use (if not downright dangerous), they are also cruel, painful and kill most of their subjects. 95% of the over 100 million animals who suffer and die in laboratories — this includes not just medical tests but food, cosmetic, chemical, and purely academic experiments — have no protection from cruelty. The federal Animal Welfare Act, which ostensibly protects animals in laboratories, doesn’t cover mice, rats, birds, and cold-blooded animals. As long as a lab-affiliated committee approves an experiment, the experimenter can do whatever he or she wants to these living, feeling creatures.
Happily, some scientists have turned their attention towards creating more effective and ethical alternatives to vivisection, like computer models and tissue cultures that have more in common with human physiology than any animal does. The Harvard Crimson reports that researchers recently developed a device that “simulates the microenvironment of the human intestine by creating a miniaturized three-dimensional scaffold that supports growth and development of a patientís own cellsóeven including microbes essential for digestion and normal physiology.”
The lead researcher, Harvard University Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering Director Donald E. Ingber, said that one motive for his work is “the problem that animal testing really doesn’t accurately predict what happens in humans.” According to The Crimson, Ingber believes the new technology may allow scientists “to pursue a more comprehensive understanding of cellular pathways and medical prognoses.” It could be especially valuable for research into Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Harvard’s Assistant Director for Undergraduate Studies in Biomedical Engineering, Sujata Bhatia, said that the new device “does such a nice job of mimicking the actual environment of the intestine, it could be an amazing tool for both biomedical students and biomedical engineers.”
Ingber anticipates more devices that will improve upon and replace animal research, including technologies replicating human lungs and hearts and even the interactions among multiple organs. This is good news for animals and humans alike.
Photo credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim