AIDS, Animal Rights and Bad Science
HIV research based on animal experimentation is scientifically flawed
AIDS research funds are being squandered on repetitive animal experiments which are largely irrelevant to understanding how the human immune system is undermined.
This view is being voiced increasingly by top scientists who are highly critical of the huge expenditure on animal-based HIV studies by the Medical Research Council (MRC).
"The jury is still out on whether animal experiments are useful predictors of what happens with humans," according to one of Britain's senior AIDS researchers, who requested to remain anonymous. "To spend so much money on this area (primate research) is almost criminally negligent".
What do we do know for certain is that vivisectionists have found it impossible to inject animals with HIV and induce human-like AIDS, except in one seriously disputed case.
Conversely, the monkey immuno-deficiency virus SIV does not produce AIDS in people.
Critics say that setting aside so much of the AIDS research effort to study non-humans means that far more important studies of the human immune system are being neglected and under-funded.
As long ago as 1992, leading scientists such as Professor Robin Weiss and Dr John Moore warned: "It is a worrisome possibility that experiments on SIV may not be predictive".
Their view was echoed by the head of a private HIV research company funded by the MRC who suggested that "monkey models are not appropriate". A similar opinion was expressed by Albert Sabin, the veteran scientist who developed the first oral polio vaccine: "What has been demonstrated up to now in animals does not have any relevance".
The bulk of AIDS research revolves around understanding how HIV destroys the immune system, but many current HIV theories and treatments are profoundly problematic in that they are based on experiments with other species. These have dubious relevance to people with AIDS, given the vast differences between human and non-human physiology.
Interestingly, a significant breakthrough in AIDS research in 1989 was part-funded by an anti-vivisection organisation, the Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research, which is dedicated to the promotion of cruelty-free medical science.
It was the Trust's funding that helped finance Professor Jonathan Weber's team at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London. This team produced new insights on the mechanism by which HIV enters human cells.
Professor Weber believes that this breakthrough may not have come about if, like many other scientists, he had concentrated on experiments with chimpanzees, monkeys, rabbits, mice, cats and guinea pigs.
"Understanding how HIV responds in humans is crucial to the development of a vaccine and cure," says Professor Weber. "You're unlikely to get that information from research with other species."
Humans and non-humans have a quite distinct physical and immunological make up. There's also the uniquely human mental and emotional influences on illness. Our attitudinal response to disease produces a tangible psychological-immunological interaction that can affect the outcome. These factors don't apply to other species. As a consequence, HIV and the drugs developed to treat it will inevitably react differently in people and animals.
Professor Weber also points out that tests on rats and mice failed to predict some of the adverse side effects of AIDS treatments, such as AZT and ddI, on people with HIV. All that animal tests offer is a vague guide to toxicity, which may or may not reflect how the drug will affect humans.
The team at St. Mary's Hospital believe that human volunteer trials can give fast and accurate results.
The safety of new drugs can be assured using computer models, and human cell tissue and organ cultures. Another option is the administration of tiny, harmless doses to human volunteers and the monitoring of their internal effects by means of biopsies, lasers and ultrasound probes.
These test methods are usually a better indicator of a drug's safety than experiments with other species. Arsenic and asbestos, for example, rarely cause cancer in animals, but often do so in humans. The use of Digitalis as a treatment for heart patients was delayed for many years because it was first tried out on dogs and resulted in their development of dangerously high blood pressure.
Likewise, humans and other species react differently to anti-AIDS drugs. After experimenting on chimpanzees for 10 years, a top US AIDS scientist, Patricia Fultz, said she doubted that animal research can advance the understanding of HIV in humans or contribute to the development of successful new treatments: "I don't think it (infecting chimps with HIV) will make any difference at all in vaccine development".
Despite the emotive claim that animal research is necessary to save the lives of people with AIDS, there is not a single significant breakthrough in AIDS research that can be attributed to animal experimentation. Vivisection is a discredited, disreputable pseudo-science that is holding back a genuine understanding of AIDS and how most effectively to defeat it.
* Peter Tatchell is the author of AIDS: A Guide To Survival and Safer Sexy - The Guide to Gay Sex Safely.
Tribune, 12 December 1997.
Other versions of this article were previously published in Continuum, Vol. 4, No.3, September/October 1996; and in Time Out No.1351, 10-17 July 1996.
See also "Animal Magic is science fiction", Positive Nation, November 1997; and "No Conflict? AIDS Research & Animal Rights", Thud, 9 January 1997
© Copyright Peter Tatchell, 1997. All rights reserved.
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