What’s behind the increase? (Photo: Getty Images)
Animal testing and its prevalence is a widely and hotly debated ethical concern. Some reports have hinted testing rates may have dropped in recent years,but a new study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics shows there was actually a 73 percent rise in animal testing from 1997 to 2012.
Researchers from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) analyzed open records submitted to the National Institutes of Health by federally funded research institutions, including how many animals were used in each laboratory. They focused on the 25 largest recipients of National Institute of Health grants, including institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Johns Hopkins universities. Looking at all the data together, the researchers noted a 72.7 percent increase over 15 years, particularly because of a rise in the use of laboratory mice.
If that stat seems alarming and under-publicized, there may be a reason: The seemingly sharp rise may have something to do with which animals are federally regulated and which animals are not, making data on the actual prevalence of testing across species harder to come by.
By way of the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, institutions aren’t required to report the same data on all types of animals used in tests, the new study says. Currently, animals with charisma and likeness similar to humans (dogs, cats, and chimpanzees, for instance) are regulated, whereas animals like mice, rats, and birds — which make up 98.8 percent of animals in the lab — are not. Researchers from PETA sought to fill the gap in the prevalence of vertebrate animals used in lab tests, and saw a significant jump.
Study researcher Alka Chandna, PhD, senior laboratory oversight specialist at PETA, says there are still many questions about how well medical testing on animals translates to humans, and a definite need for tighter regulation on all animals.
“While experimentation on larger mammals like dogs, cats, rabbits, and monkeys has thankfully decreased in recent years, our study unfortunately found that that the use of mice — who feel pain and suffer just the same — is quickly expanding,” she tells Yahoo Health.
With this in mind, PETA funds many research projects to reduce the need for animal testing. “Forward-thinking scientists are studying diseases and testing products using incredible technologies like organs-on-chips, advanced brain imaging with human volunteers, and sophisticated computer-modeling techniques,” she says. “These methods are faster, more reliable, less expensive, and more humane than tests on animals.”
Sandy Walsh, a spokesperson for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, says the agency has not reviewed this specific new study, but explains why researchers currently utilize animal testing.
“There are still many areas where animal testing is necessary and non-animal testing is not yet a scientifically valid and available option,” she tells Yahoo Health. “However, FDA has supported efforts to reduce animal testing. In addition, FDA has research and development efforts underway to reduce the need for animal testing and to work toward replacement of animal testing.”
Walsh also explains the FDA’s stance on the purpose of animal testing as an early step in research. “For drugs and biologics, the focus of animal testing is on the drug’s nature, chemistry, and effects, and on its potential damage to the body,” she says. “Animal testing is used to measure how much of a drug or biologic is absorbed into the blood, how a medical product is broken down chemically in the body, the toxicity of the product and its breakdown components metabolites, and how quickly the product and its metabolites are excreted from the body.”
For medical devices, researchers are looking to see how living tissue responds to a device. “Most devices use materials, such as stainless steel or ceramic, that we know are biocompatible with human tissues. In these cases, no animal testing is required,” Walsh explains. “However, some devices with new materials require biocompatibility testing in animals.”
According to Walsh, when animal testing is done to support applications for medical products regulated by the FDA, manufacturers or sponsors must follow FDA regulation guidelines in Good Laboratory Practice for Nonclinical Laboratory Studies, which lays out a protocol for testing. She also says that the FDA is also in favor of institutions using independent animal care use committees, which evaluate the care and uses of animals in lab testing.
As a result of the current study, and since there is a gap in regulation and what information is widely publicized, Chandna says she’d like to see institutional policies be updated so institutes can have “informed discussions about the scope of the problem and identify opportunities for improvement.”
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