In vitro testing needs a push

Published: Monday 31 May 2010

At a lab working on kala-azar in Bihar, a rabbit was tied spreadeagled in a glass chamber full of sand flies. Its eyes almost human, they expressed the shame of being publicly humiliated.

The rabbit was part of an experiment at the institute and one of the 150 million animals used for medical testing around the world (see p40). The rabbit’s misery may not be of any use. The problem is that drug and cosmetic legislation around the world require that every product launched in the market has been tested on animals—in the hope that adverse effects are identified before human beings use them. Yet several drugs need to be removed from the market because of adverse effects.

A majority of researchers fight for the right to use animals for their studies, and point to loopholes in the alternative to animal tests, that is, in vitro tests carried out in lab equipment like test tubes. They believe the agony and pain caused to the animals is justified in the quest for saving human lives. They are pitted against animal rights activists who advocate a shift to in vitro tests in which tissue cultures are used as guinea pigs and computer simulations provide an alternative to cutting open live animals, that is, vivisection.

Relying too much on animal tests has created a mindset, making research perfunctory. The drug and cosmetic authorities are satisfied with the basic minimum. The researcher is happy with a published paper where no one can point fingers at the testing protocol.

A change may be for the better. It requires a database on in vitro testing—as large as that on animal testing. It won’t be a small task given that animal testing has been common for 1,800 years since the Roman physician Galen of Pergamum, called the father of vivisection. It may be that in vitro is the way to more breakthroughs. The way to save more lives.

The more we know the better

There is very little data in India on crop damage by wild animals. Such studies have been few and far between; there are still no figures of crop attacks by animals. Even estimates at the state level are missing. But the problem is increasing (see p35). Farmers around forested areas continue to lose produce. The animals face the threat of being killed by these angry cultivators.

It seems most likely that anthropogenic activities will increase around forests. People and farming will exert greater pressure on wild animals. Buffer forests are not what they used to be. The health of our forests is also a concern. The government needs to ready a plan to mitigate and minimize this malaise.

A lot of money goes in research and conservation of wildlife. Most of it is for research within the national parks and sanctuaries. Satellite data is used to collate information about forest health. gps and cameras fitted with lasers are now used to track and count animals. But what about wild animals that move out of the forest in search of food? The answers may not be hard to find, but need rigour and persistence.

Different places have tried different tactics to combat this problem. Himachal Pradesh has issued hunting licences to farmers who can shoot nilgais when they enter their field. In Karnataka, near the Bandipur National Park, experiments to fence fields have been carried out. In Assam, elephants are dissuaded using chilly powder. But these are only a few ways—and their effectiveness is questionable.

The government needs to appraise the situation and collect data on a war footing. A rota on the attacks and the reasons is the prescription of the day. Studies on nutritional content in the forest are needed. And any proposal for diversion of forestland for development must be checked through a headmaster’s eyepiece.image

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