Spare the subject

Alternatives to keep animals away from scientific research labs

By Mona Sharma, Vibha Varshney
Published: Wednesday 31 July 2002

-- WHILE the spat between animal activists and researchers has ostensibly cost Maneka Gandhi and C P Thakur their ministerial posts, the Union government too is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Should it allow the torture and killing of laboratory animals or should it kill research? Experts feel that it needn't do either if alternatives to animal testing are aggressively promoted.

The term 'alternatives' is usually taken to include the three 'Rs' - replacement, reduction and refinement - where replacement pertains to substituting animals with cells, tissues and organs; reduction stands for curtailing the use of animals in experimentation and refinement deals with fine-tuning tests so that they are more humane. Significantly, these principles have been adopted widely around the world.

In India the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA), which falls under the purview of the department of animal welfare, has tried propagating the concept. But so far scientific institutions have been chary about adopting it, primarily because of lack of awareness and inadequate facilities.
Beastly battle It was the raging debate between the CPCSEA which was headed by Maneka Gandhi till she was sacked and the Union health ministry - with C P Thakur at the helm prior to his being shown the door, that underscored the need for these viable options. The cause of the verbal slugfest: appalling conditions under which experiments were conducted on animals by research bodies.

According to Maneka Gandhi, diseased animals are being used to extract vaccines and test oral drugs. It is felt that research carried out on sick animals will yield inaccurate results. But G B Talwar, former director, National Institute of Immunology, counters: "The CPCSEA has caused an extreme degree of interference." In fact, most researchers aver that research should be taken care of by scientific institutions. Camellia Satija of Kindness to Animals and Respect for Environment, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), however, believes that the functioning of the body would be fair only if it is autonomous.

To be sure, the stand taken by the CPCSEA appears to be reasonable considering that it is merely demanding adherence to the guidelines laid down on animal testing. Even as Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has directed the CPCSEA to convene a meeting and make a final decision on the contentious issue of laboratory animals, experts are mooting safer surrogates.
Spoilt for choice What would be more preferable: using 100 rats to make multiple copies of an antibody or growing the antibody in one rat and then multiplying it in vitro? This is only one of the many techniques that are in use across the globe, where the use of animals in laboratories is either minimised or not required.
Computer simulation is said to be one of the most reliable methods. The protease inhibitors used in AIDS triple therapy have been developed using this

Even small tissues of humans, which are discarded, such as a woman's uterus and an umbilical cord can be used constructively to test drugs

Human cells grown in labs can be used to ascertain the toxicity of plastic and synthetic devices used in medical devices such as heart valves

Clinical trials and epidemiological studies carried out on humans can be utilised to replace animals

A mixture of chemicals can help test potential irritants to the eye

Lower animals such as invertebrates, plants and microbes can be used instead of higher animals.

"Experiments carried out on alternatives are likely to be more reliable," avers Satija. There is corroborative evidence: smoking was thought to be non-carcinogenic because smoking-related cancer is difficult to reproduce in lab animals; animal models of heart disease failed to show that a high-fat diet increases the risk of coronary artery disease; animal tests failed to predict the kidney toxicity of general anaesthetic methoxyflurane; research on animals failed to reveal bacteria as a cause of ulcers and delayed treating ulcers with antibiotics. Reasons enough to dissect and question guinea pig treatment?

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