Animal Tests Delayed Protease Drugs
Animal experiments have undermined HIV research and hindered the availability of new treatments.
The development of life-saving protease inhibitor treatments for HIV was delayed for four years by the pharmaceutical company Merck after the drugs killed laboratory dogs and rats. During those four years, tens of thousands of people with AIDS died, perhaps needlessly. Most would have benefited from the new drugs, including my dear friend Derek Jarman. He and many others might be alive now if Merck had not submitted its protease research programme to the "Russian roulette" of animal testing.
Merck made the false, unscientific assumption that animal experiments provide an accurate model of how anti-HIV drugs interact with humans. The result? Research on a promising protease inhibitor was halted by Merck in 1989 and clinical trials of a new protease drug (crixivan) did not start until 1993.
This disastrous setback in protease research is one of the greatest scandals of the AIDS epidemic, possibly contributing to the premature deaths of up to 50,000 people world-wide.
The way animal research stalled the availability of protease inhibitor treatments was exposed last year in Washington Post Magazine, and has since been conceded - in part - by the Vice-President of Merck, Bennett M Shapiro. He acknowledges that trials of a promising protease drug were halted in 1989, after it was tested on lab rats and dogs and they all died. Merck assumed that this treatment would have the same deadly effect on humans.
It is, however, questionable whether the abandoned protease inhibitor would have caused similar damaging consequences to people. This is because there are huge physiological differences between humans and animals. Research findings in other species cannot, therefore, be generalised to people. Indeed, protease drugs - which may be lethal to dogs and rats - have dramatically improved the lives of those with HIV.
Merck admits that animal studies were not used in the primary research that led to the invention of protease inhibitors as a treatment for HIV. An animal-free breakthrough, the inhibitor drugs were designed on computers and safety-tested using human cell cultures and biochemical assays. It was only when Merck decided to further test the new drugs on laboratory animals that they ran into trouble, with the dogs and rats dying of liver failure. Protease inhibitors do not, of course, have these same fatal consequences for people. On the contrary, they are life-savers.
This demonstrates the scientific flaws of animal-based medical research. Animal tests can produce inaccurate data that is totally inapplicable to humans. The results are often tragic: as evidenced by all the people with HIV who died during the lost four years, 1989 to 1993.
Edited version of this article published in QXmagazine, No.205, 18 November 1998.
See also "Researchers dump animal tests." Thud, 29 August, 1997
© Copyright Peter Tatchell, 1998. All rights reserved.
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