Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The strange case of smoking animals, tobacco companies and research - Part III

Alternatives to animal experiments

There are many methods and techniques which could replace animal experimentation, and are more precise, cost-effective, and humane.
The main ones are:

  • the epidemiological method, the study of human populations, which was used to discover the smoking-lung cancer link discussed above;
  • in vitro techniques, ie cultures of cells and tissues on which to conduct tests - penicillin and streptomycin are historical examples of in vitro discoveries;
  • clinical research, ie careful observations and analyses of patients;
  • computer and mathematical modelling, a relatively new branch of medical research using complex software to simulate biochemical reactions by recreating our body components structurally and in terms of healthy and diseased chemical reactions, then submitting them to chemical and curative substances;
  • genetic research, often used alongside epidemiological evidence;
  • autopsies - practically every disease has either been discovered or clarified as a result of autopsy, which also indicates aspects of illness missed in diagnoses;
  • post-marketing drug surveillance (PMDS), the reporting of effects and side effects of a medication after its release, which unfortunately is not required at present and only relies on voluntary and infrequent reporting. The current situation therefore makes it impossible to maintain comprehensive data on any drug’s potential for negative reactions.
  • technology, for example ultrasound, blood-gas analysis machines, monitoring devices, DNA sequencing, gene chips, combinatorial and solid phase syntheses, bio-compatible materials, polymerase chain reaction, separation and purification methods, the Fast Fourier transforms used in spectroscopy and CAT scans, fast sequence alignment and database methods used in genomics, conformational search and optimization methods used in protein folding.

These methods would represent an improvement if they replaced animal research now, even considering the little money and time that have been spent on them in comparison to the gigantic resources invested in animal experiments. The main problem is not that there are no alternatives, but that there is no or little political will to make that choice. If funds and energy were devoted to these other methods, great progress could be made.

And, to go back to the fungal analogy above, in case you were thinking that I could have fed the mushrooms to some animal to test them, don’t. It is well known that a mushroom can be eaten by squirrels, rabbits, or other animals and still be dangerous for humans.

The Illinois Mycological Association, for example, says: “According to Dr. John Rippon, an IMA member and world expert on fungal diseases, squirrels have an interesting adaptation that allows them to eat mushrooms containing deadly amanita toxins without being affected.”

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