It was January 2017, and I had been eagerly waiting for the fourth season of “Sherlock”, my favourite crime series based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictitious private investigator Sherlock Holmes. However, as I watched the final episode of the season, things took a rather different turn. As Sherlock and his partner-in-crime Dr. Watson faced a series of trials, he couldn’t help but blurt out, “This isn’t torture, this is vivisection.We’re experiencing science from the perspective of lab rats.” Suddenly, I felt like someone had slapped me hard. Here was Sherlock, my favourite fictional character channelising his thoughts in the same inflammatory tone that the community chooses, vilifying us researchers without leaving enough room for us to voice our opinions.
Back in the early 20th, there was very little application of moral principles when it came to the medical system. The horrific human experimentation during the Second World War led policymakers to seriously consider putting a system of medical ethics in place. Shortly after the war, thalidomide, a sedative drug came into the market. The sales quickly skyrocketed in a post-war, sleep deprived world. Soon, physicians discovered that the drug was also capable of alleviating certain aspects of morning sickness. Off-label uses of drugs, or prescribing drugs for ailments other than the one for which the drug was specifically approved, was a common practice. Things were going great before physicians started to observe a surge in the number of babies born with birth defects. Thalidomide was soon identified as the culprit and by 1962 and the drug was banned from most European countries.
Now please remember, that we are talking about a time when there was no stringent system of clinical trials in place under the guidance of US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Drug companies used to pass samples to doctors and pay the physicians to collect data from patients. The thalidomide tragedy provided a necessary wake-up call, and many countries, including the US, started shaping the framework of legislations to ensure that the drugs pass through rigorous clinical trials before they could be approved for human patients.
But then, the question remained, if the scientists could not study human patients on ethical grounds, how would they conduct their research to understand disease mechanisms, identify new drug targets or ensure that a prospective drug is safe to be tested on human patients?
Animals have a lot more in common with humans than you would think. About 98% of human genetic makeup is similar to mice. We suffer from similar kinds of diseases and have somewhat identical biology. Thus, when we study animals, it gives us enough perspectives and scientific insights to understand how different cellular mechanisms cross-talk with each other. Quite often, animal activists question us about why we can’t replace animal experimentations with alternative approaches. I remember posting a picture of mine on Instagram in animal research gear, inviting the wrath of an activist who tried to attack me asking why don’t I inject drugs in my own body instead of tormenting the mice. I preferred to remain silent, although I wish I could have narrated to her the story of Barry Marshall, who took a shot of the Helicobacter Pylori bacteria to assess the effect of the same on ulcer formation. It turned out, Marshall was right in his hypothesis and the discovery later won him Nobel Prize. However, if I do something like that today, I would probably get a citation from the ethics commission.
More often than not, scientists have to strip off their emotions. Researchers are trained to be rational and objective in their practice of science and we avoid discussing our emotional connections with our scientific pursuits. Thus, it is not difficult to jump to the conclusion that we don’t care about the animals we work with and only see them as research subjects. It is not realised, that just as doctors feel compassionate about their patients but still need to detach themselves to perform their responsibilities, we as scientists also train ourselves to be clinical to be able to address the scientific questions that face us objectively. However, to think that the scientists don’t care would be a gross misunderstanding of the issue. A survey conducted by Nature, one of the world’s most reputed scientific journal, revealed that about 4 out of 5 scientists consider that the elimination of animal experiments is a desirable goal. Moreover, 3 out of 4 of them feel that the biomedical community is not engaging well with the general public to make them appreciate the use of animals in research.
I still remember my first day of animal training in graduate school. The technicians who were responsible for the training warned us that in the past, multiple researchers have fainted during the training, as they could not handle the emotional stress associated with experimentation using live animals. Although I didn’t faint, I had to spend a long time in the pool that evening to calm myself. From that first exposure, it took me a few months to gradually accept the necessary evil of animal experimentation. Even now, as I continue my research with experimental cancer models in mice and my girlfriend’s mother thinks I am heartless to ‘give tumors to animals’, my heart still melts when I look at those beady little eyes when I am not actively working with them.
In an ideal world, we wish we could completely replace animal experiments with a perfect model. Unfortunately, computer simulations or even a rather sophisticated three-dimensional cell culture cannot closely mimic the complexities of a living system. And thus, animal models remain an irreplaceable resource for presumably the near future. But, given the circumstances, as a scientific community, we need to engage with the public to make ourselves heard, clarify where we stand, and showcase that we care about the animals too.