In a groundbreaking move, the Dutch government recently announced it is working to end all experiments on animals. The Netherlands had already passed a motion in parliament to phase out experiments on nonhuman primates, and now its goal is to be using only human-relevant, nonanimal testing methods by 2025.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals UK scientists have met with government officials and provided a 70-page document outlining areas of experimentation that can be ended immediately and a strategy for moving forward. Now the United States and other nations should follow suit.
The Dutch government’s bold decision promises great progress not only for the millions of animals who are intentionally infected with diseases, force-fed chemicals, blinded, burned, mutilated and left to suffer without veterinary care inside laboratories every year, but also for human patients desperately waiting for therapies and cures for their illnesses.
We’ve long known that mice are not just tiny human beings and that experimenters who cling to the archaic animal “model” as the gold standard of research are wasting precious time, resources and lives — both human and animal.
Although animals have the same capacity to feel fear and pain that we humans have, our physiology is vastly different, and results from animal studies are rarely relevant to human health. Multiple systematic reviews have documented the overwhelming failure of experiments on animals to benefit humans in the areas of neurodegenerative disease, neuropsychiatric disorders, cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, inflammatory disease and more.
Nine out of 10 experimental drugs that pass animal studies fail in humans, and the few that are approved often need to be relabeled or pulled from the market after they sicken or kill human patients. Decades of HIV and AIDS experiments have failed to produce effective vaccines for humans, even though at least 85 were successful in primate studies. And while “(w)e have cured mice of cancer for decades” — according to former National Cancer Institute Director Dr. Richard Klausner — “it simply didn’t work in humans.”
No wonder John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine and of health research and policy at Stanford University School of Medicine, says it is “nearly impossible to rely on most animal data to predict whether or not an intervention will have a favorable clinical benefit-risk ratio in human subjects.”
There are better ways to conduct research than intentionally sickening and injuring animals. For example, scientists can replicate human organs on microchips to test the impact of potential drugs. Sophisticated computer models can simulate the progression of developing diseases and accurately predict the reaction of drugs in the human body. Advanced brain-imaging techniques — which allow the human brain to be safely studied down to the level of a single neuron — can replace crude experiments in which animals are intentionally brain-damaged.
In the field of toxicity testing, nonanimal methods harnessing scientific advances in molecular and cell biology, genetics, computational power and robotic testing systems can test more chemicals in a single day than have been tested in the past 20 years using animals. These methods allow scientists to test mixtures of chemicals, assess chemical effects on vulnerable populations or life stages, and detect sensitive effects that animal tests cannot.
But setting aside the fact that experimenting on animals is bad science and that there are more relevant and efficient methods, it is morally wrong to poison, infect, burn and cut up animals in a laboratory. Just as our science has advanced, so has our understanding of the other beings with whom we share the planet. Other animals, like us, are conscious beings who develop friendships, have complex social structures, use language and make tools, are capable of understanding cause-and-effect relationships, solve problems, form abstract thoughts and show empathy.
Fortunately, this is not a case of us vs. them. By embracing bold policy initiatives as the Netherlands has done and investing in exciting and progressive nonanimal methods, we will have far more promising treatments and cures for humans, and more effective and reliable methods for toxicity assessment, while also sparing tens of millions of animals unimaginable suffering.