'Chasing Ehrlich's dream: the quest for magic bullets'

by Sandip K Basu,
National Institute of Immunology


No sober public debate on this critical issue has so far been possible in India, given the tendency of the media to favour emotive or celebrity reportage. The controversy thus simmers without being understood.

Why use animals for experimentation? Biomedical research aims to work out how a human or animal body functions and looks for clues for interventions to correct dysfunction for ensuring better health. However in the 20th century, society at largeset the ethical norm to treat human life with utmost dignity. Therefore no human application is permitted until an intervention is proven to be safe as extrapolated from experimental studies often involving animals. Animal experimentation thus becomes necessary out of respect for human life.

Staunch animal-rights activists demand that animals, being living creatures, must be accorded the same dignity as human beings, or even more by virtue of being innocent.

Is such an anthropomorphic view of the animal world justified? Is there ethical coherence to it? If their strident demands result in a virtual ban on using animals for any kind of research, what do we lose?

We do lose a lot. Most wonders of modern medicine that remarkably improved human and animal health would not have been possible without the use of animals for experimentation. There are examples galore: surgical procedures for heart and kidney transplant, vaccines against polio and whooping cough, miracle medicines from Aureomycin to Zantac. The list goes on.

Infections pose a constant and evolving threat to human life. Since 1973 about 20 brand new disease entities have been identified against which we have no effective vaccine or medicine.

Effective new ways are needed to cope with these and other diseases ranging from cancers to cardiac disorders.. For such attempts to be meaningful, the pathological processes involved need to be understood.

If animals cannot be used for mimicking such human conditions in the laboratory and finding answers to problems, human beings will have to be used for extensive experimentation with potential danger to life and health in the process. Society has already rejected this as unethical.

If neither animals nor human beings can be used, all future research towards understanding the functioning of the human body and attempts to keep it healthy would have to be stopped. Since this is hardly agreeable, we must accept that there is nothing inherently 'morally evil' about experimenting on animals, and the notion of 'animal welfare' is far more tenable than any concept of 'animal rights'.

Since animal experimentation is indispensable, is regulation of animal experimentation necessary? The answer is a definite 'yes’. All social human activities must be regulated with pragmatic rules set after democratic debate.

How do we then reconcile the conflict between the ethical perceptions of a vocal fringe with an essential requirement of biomedical research?

What society must vehemently resist however is the subversion of 'human rights' by the so-called 'animal rights' activists who try to introduce unworkable rules for animal experimentation in pursuit of a covert, non-democratic 'anti-vivisectionist' agenda.

This one of the lesser-appreciated but critical examples of the labyrinths of ethical considerations in science and technology.

Dawn or dusk? What is the image of a future for humanity that new biology heralds for us? It could be the dawn of opportunity resplendent in societal wisdom - our hopes for our children. It could also portend the dusk of the long dark night -- a tired, spent-out generation mired in indecision or foolish bequeaths - a generation that will be cursed by our children. The decision is ours.

References: 1. J. Drews (1993). Into the 21st century: Biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry in the next ten years. Biotechnology 11: 416-420. 2. A. M. Thayer (1996). Market, investor attitudes challenge developers of biopharmaceuticals. Chem. Eng. News, August 12. 3. D. E, Hassett & H. L. Whitton (1996) DNA immunization. Trends Microbiol. 4: 307-312. 4. C. H. Hsu et at (1996). Immunoprophylaxis of allergen induced immunoglobulin E synthesis and airway hyper responsiveness in vivo by genetic immunization. Nature Med. 2: 540-544. 5. S. Brahmachari (1996). Human genome studies and intellectual property rights: Whither national interest? Current Science 72:708-716. 6. G.Walsh (2000). Biopharmaceutical benchmarks Nature Biotech. 18: 831-833
(Adapted from slide show notes)

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