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Opinion | Dr. Oz’s experiments killing hundreds of dogs sheds light on a terrible practice

On Monday, Jezebel reported that from 1989 to 2010, research by Dr. Mehmet Oz — the television personality and Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania — inflicted suffering on and killed over 300 dogs, 31 pigs and 661 rabbits and rodents. It was during Oz’s time as a principal investigator at a Columbia University lab. 

Ironically, the discovery comes on the heels of the Senate’s unanimously passing the FDA Modernization Act 2.0 last week. The measure would eliminate a federal mandate in the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requiring animal testing for new drugs. Drug developers would be permitted to use alternative methods to test for safety if this reform becomes law. That’s good news, but there should be a bill that ends animal testing altogether. Perhaps the latest news about Oz, playing out on the national stage, will hammer that point home.

Defenders of animal testing often argue that while it may be imperfect, it is our only option for advancing human medicine. This view neglects how differences in the bodies of species can lead to misleading information.

For context, the Humane Society estimates that over 50 million animals are used in laboratory experiments every year in the U.S. The Animal Welfare Act minimally protects some species. Still, as is alleged with Oz, violations routinely occur, and most animals tested are not covered

In these experiments, animals are exposed to toxic chemicals or diseases and imprisoned in barren cages. They are usually killed after experiments are completed.

Despite these grim realities, advocates of testing on animals argue that it is critical for medical developments and treatments in humans. To bolster their position, proponents of animal testing point to important discoveries throughout history in which animal research was involved. For example, in 1921, researchers Frederick G. Banting, Charles Best and John Macleod demonstrated that we could treat diabetes with insulin by performing experiments on laboratory dogs who had their pancreatic ducts tied; in 1939, a group of scientists discovered the antibiotic effect of Penicillium by infecting mice with a virulent strain of Streptococcus and then treating half of them with the Penicillium mold; in 1953, Jonas Salk produced the first inactivated polio vaccine using a virus grown on monkey kidney cells.

Moreover, those in favor of animal experimentation argue that substances that have not been first tested on animals at all or thoroughly enough pose threats to humans. One purported cautionary development occurred in the late 1950s and the early 1960s with thalidomide. Originally designed to be a sedative, it was found to have other healing effects. This “wonder drug“ was found to help pregnant women with the symptoms of morning sickness. However, thalidomide had not been tested on pregnant animals.

Thousands of pregnant women took the drug internationally (it was not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but as many as 20,000 people in the U.S. were given the drug as part of a clinical trial, according to a New York Times report).

A deeper dive into these claims reveals that animal testing is not all it is cracked up to be and that it may actually be hindering medical progress.

Sadly, it turned out that thalidomide can cause major birth defects, specifically in babies’ limbs, bones, ears, eyes and hearts, and can also lead to pregnancy loss or infant death. The drug was taken off the market, but the damage was done. According to one report, an estimated 24,000 babies were born with thalidomide-induced malformations worldwide, and 123,000 stillbirths and miscarriages were caused by the drug. Reflecting on this tragedy, one scientist noted that “had there been more extensive testing on laboratory animals before the drug was launched, the disaster could have been avoided.”

But a deeper dive into these claims reveals that animal testing is not all it is cracked up to be and that it may actually be hindering medical progress.

It is worth noting at the outset that a lot of experiments involving the use of animals are so poorly designed that their results are meaningless. One analysis found that among 2,671 papers from 1992 to 2011 that reported trials in animals, randomization was not reported in 75% of them, blinding was absent in 70%, and fewer than 1% and 12% had sample-size calculations and conflict of interest statements, respectively — all factors that can lead to inaccurate results. 

And even when the studies are designed reasonably well, the results do not usually hold up in humans. A 2004 FDA report found that 92% of drugs that pass the animal testing stage are ultimately abandoned.

So why, then, does animal experimentation often accompany breakthroughs in medicine? According to Dr. John J. Pippin, a former animal experimenter who is now the director of academic affairs at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a research and advocacy organization that promotes alternatives to animal research, it is essentially chance: “It may reasonably be stated that most medical advances have included animal experimental use; for decades, this has been the default approach. But it has not been demonstrated that such animal use has been essential or even reliable for medical advancement.”

Defenders of animal testing often argue that while it may be imperfect, it is our only option for advancing human medicine. This view neglects how differences in the bodies of species can lead to misleading information — which can be worse than no information. In addition, it ignores the reality of alternatives already available that are based on human biology and have the potential to increase research relevance and deliver more reliable risk assessments while maintaining existing safety levels. 

One of these breakthrough technologies is advanced data computing. A 2018 Johns Hopkins study suggested that scientists could use large databases of known chemicals to predict a new chemical’s toxic properties better than tests on animals.

Another viable alternative is organs-on-a-chip, or “organoids,” miniature tissues and organs in-vitro that enable modeling of human physiology and disease. Lung, liver, kidney, gut, skin, brain, heart and other organ chips have all been developed. They present many game-changing possibilities, including simulating particular diseases, such as cancer or heart disease, and providing researchers with a cost-effective way to evaluate the impacts of drugs in real time.

Other viable in-vitro methods include the use of “biobanks,” biological samples often left over from clinical procedures, such as surgery, or from dead bodies; technologies that use stem cells; and even 3D printing. While some of these promising technologies are in their infancy, imagine what could be accomplished if the billions of dollars wasted on animal testing were allocated toward further advancing them.

Perhaps for all of these reasons, a 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that a growing majority of Americans oppose using animals in experiments. But for this projected boom in non-animal testing methods to catch up with public opinion, funding and regulatory bodies will need to explore a shift in focus, going well beyond the FDA Modernization Act 2.0. The fate of both animal and human life depends on it.

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