Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Animals and Research

Way back, during my misspent scientific youth (although not quite this far back), I was involved in a research project that used rats. Many, many rats.

We were doing diabetes research. Specifically, we were looking at the effects an aldose reductase inhibitor had on certain diabetes-related conditions, like cataracts and neuropathy. This was primarily a physiological question: what happens in a diabetic if you inhibit the conversion of glucose to other compounds? And, there just didn't seem to be a good way to really answer this question without in vivo studies.

So, the rats.

The first relevant fact is that all the rats we used were given diabetes (or a condition close enough to diabetes to serve as a good animal model), some by injection with a compound that knocked out the pancreas, others via a diet packed with galactose. What this means is that life was not super for our control groups. The experimental groups got treated with the promising compound, at various doses, for various lengths of time. But then, they got "sacrificed" so their lenses, kidneys, and caudal arteries could be extracted and analyzed. (Of course, the control group rats were sacrificed, too, so we could use their lenses, kidneys, and caudal arteries for comparison.)

As a student researcher in the lab, I never had to sacrifice the rats or do the extractions, but I was there (because I had to be to prepare the tissue samples). The first time I was on the team for tissue harvest day, I felt rather dizzy and had to sit in the hall with my head between my knees for awhile. I was told that this was a very common reaction ... and that I'd get over it. For the most part, I did.

There were particular parts of my job in the lab that did not evoke great sympathy for the rats from me. For example, cleaning the "metabolic cages". Besides tissue samples, we collected urine samples from the rats for analysis. You really can't get a rat to pee in a cup, so, metabolic cages are designed to collect the urine as the rat urinates. They are nasty to clean. Still, I wouldn't say that they're so nasty that the being making the mess automatically deserves to have its eyeballs pulled out.

Also, the P.I. made a point of telling me that it cost more per day to maintain one of our laboratory rats under IRB-approved conditions than it did to feed a person in India ... which, I suppose, was meant to reassure me that the rats were receiving excellent care, but instead made me really worry about the well-being of the people in India.

Did the benefits of this research outweigh the costs?

The costs, in terms of number of rats sacrificed and their quality of life before they were sacrificed, was significant. Then again, short of going right to testing on humans, it seems to me animal testing was the only way to answer the questions we were trying to answer. And these questions are pretty significant for the health and well-being of people with diabetes, since they went right to the heart of the dominant approach to treatment (controlling glucose level). If it was not the glucose level but rather the levels of the compounds produced from the glucose that led to the serious complications of diabetes, then controlling the conversion of compound would seem a more promising approach to treatment. The animal model seemed like a good one -- the control group diabetic rats developed the same kinds of complications as did humans with diabetes. So, on the whole, I felt like this research was probably defensible.

Of course, I was involved in this research back in 1986-1987. Now, the incidence of Type-II diabetes, especially among children, is exploding. And, it makes me think that if I were doing this research today, I might feel differently about whether using and sacrificing so many experimental rats was justified. The reason for this is that most indications are that the explosion of Type-II diabetes is caused by lifestyle -- poor diet and lack of exercise. In other words, it should be totally avoidable!

Of course, it's not that simple, especially if you're a little kid. You eat what you're fed. Can you help it if your parents get your food from a fast-food restaurant or the snack aisle? How are you supposed to exercise when your neighborhood isn't safe enough for you to be out playing unsupervised (and there are no adults to supervise you because they're working multiple jobs or commuting long distances) and your school doesn't have funding for gym class? How the heck are you supposed to secure, on your own, the conditions required to avoid the avoidable Type-II diabetes?

Yet, I can't help but feel someone bears some responsibility here, and that that person or persons ought to be asked to bear some of the cost in addressing the problem that an animal study might be asked to solve. No, I'm not suggesting research on fast food executives ... not yet, anyway. But if their personal benefits (profits and the like) are tied to the conditions that create the problem, shouldn't these people also bear some responsibility for solving the problem? Do the rats have to do all the heavy lifting here?


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