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Why is animal research performed?

STANFORD -- I was not afraid of the needle. Some of the other first-graders squirmed and cried, but I took a deep breath and looked away. The injection was over before I knew it, just as Mom had promised.

Thus began this reporter's experience as a research animal.

This was one of the first batches of the polio vaccine, which would spare tens of thousands of my generation from life in an iron lung.

The makers of the vaccine believed it had been sufficiently tested, but something went wrong with the batch I received. Some of the children contracted polio from it. The anguish to their families - and the terror for parents l ike mine whose children escaped a close call - led to a public uproar.

The polio mistake is one of the reasons the U.S. government requires a tier of tests in at least three different species of animals before a new drug is tested on humans. It is one reason that thalidomide, the painkiller that c aused birth defects, was never prescribed to American mothers - it had not been tested on enough species.

The polio virus would still be crippling American children if scientists had not learned to understand it with research using animals. Hundreds of thousands of other people have escaped early death from pneumonia or dysentery o r infected battle wounds thanks to antibiotics that were tested in animals before they were given to humans.

If researchers had not been able to study the function of the kidneys in animals, there would have been no dialysis to save Steve Lewis' life, the year he was a college sophomore and both of his kidneys failed on an adverse rea ction to antibiotics. The kidney transplant he received three years later would have been a science fiction fantasy.

Lewis, 25, is a Palo Alto physical therapy aide who has applied for medical school, a dream he said would have been impossible without the transplant and the immunosuppressant drugs that keep him from rejecting his new kidneys. Because he may need new drugs if his system develops resistance to the current ones, he relies on animal research for his future.

"It would take an incredibly long time to figure out what immunosuppressants work, to figure out what is the right dosage, if you had to start on humans," Lewis said. "They [animal activists] talk about cell culture but there i s no way to know what [a drug] would do to the body as a whole.

"There is no way to know that unless you try it on the whole animal."

Animal research has made possible vaccines and drugs against such killer diseases as measles and tuberculosis, insulin for diabetes, pacemakers for hearts, drugs that fight cancer, painkillers, antidepressants, hip replacements and heart surgery.

At Stanford, scientists could not have made heart and lung transplants, giving decades of life to some patients, without first testing the method on animals. Other Stanford scientists created the SCID-hu mouse, with an immune s ystem that mimics a human's and is being used to study AIDS.

Among questions left unanswered that require animals for a solution: how to treat killers like cancer, atherosclerosis, cystic fibrosis and AIDS; what to do against the parasitic diseases that afflict one quarter of humankind; and how to treat arthritis, trauma and strokes.

And animal research benefits animals other than humans. A visiting scholar at Stanford is studying immunotherapy that may pave the way for kidney transplants for cats. Parvovirus, canine distemper and feline leukemia virus are a few of the pet-killers that are now preventable because of research done in other animals.

Lewis has joined a Palo Alto-based group, CLEAR, or Citizens for Life, Education and Research, that works to clear up public misunderstanding of animal research. He said he joined "when I found out that people were trying to co mpletely abolish animal research, not just improve what was done badly.

"That seems ridiculous when there are so many benefits from it," he said.


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