Animal research delayed protease inhibitors for four years

Peter Tatchell argues that animal experimentation is undermining the fight against AIDS and jeopardising the lives of people with HIV.

The development of live-saving protease inhibitors was delayed for four years by the pharmaceutical company Merck because the drugs killed laboratory dogs and rats, according to the Washington Post Magazine, (1-May-1997). During those four years, tens of thousands of people with AIDS who would have benefited from protease inhibitors died needlessly. Many would now be alive if Merck had not engaged in animal research and made the false assumption that data gathered from other species can be applied to humans. This scandal is further evidence that animal experimentation is hindering the fight agains AIDS.

People and animals have vastly different physiologies. Scientific results gathered from animal studies cannot therefore be generalised to humans, as the following two examples illustrate. —

  • Strychnine is harmless to monkeys, but lethal to humans.
  • Penicillin kills guinea pigs, but not people.

HIV is a uniquely human disease: it doesn’t affect any other species the way it affects humans. The surest way of discovering a vaccine and a cure is by researching the interaction of HIV with the human immune system, not the immune systems of animals.

This recognition is now prompting some AIDS activists to argue that experiments with other species are holding back the development of safer, more-effective anti-HIV drugs. One of Britain’s top researchers, Prof. Robin Weiss, has expressed serious doubt that information gathered from studies of laboratory animals can help illuminate the mechanisms by which HIV sabotages the immunity of humans. Another senior AIDS doctor in Britain has described the millions of dollars spent on animal research as “almost criminally negligent” because it is diverting resources away from more promising avenues of molecular-level research with human cells and the HIV virus.

A similar view has been expressed by Dr. Albert Sabin, the inventor of the first oral polio vaccine. He was quoted in London’s Independent on Sunday newspaper as saying, “what has been demonstrated up to now in animals does not have any relevance.”

In the United States, Prof. Patricia Fultz, who was a senior scientist in the CDC’s chimpanzee AIDS research programme, admits she now has doubts that experimentation with other species can help us understand or treat HIV in humans, (as reported in Science magazine, 13-October-1995).

The director of AIDS research at Duke University, Dani Bolognesi, has had second thoughts too. Writing in the June 1994 Journal of NIH research, Bolognesi argued that animal studies do not provide a reliable indicator of how HIV affects people and how the disease can be conquered. “No animal models faithfully reproduce human immune deficiency virus-type (HIV-1) infection and disease in humans,” wrote Bolognesi. “Animals are not optimal models.”

The fact is that all the current and forthcoming anti-HIV treatments were developed as a result of human-based cellular research, which showed us how HIV locks onto and penetrates human cells, and the mechanism by which HIV produces new infectious virus particles within these human cells. None of these breakthroughs was achieved by research with other species.

Indeed, a significant human-based breakthrough in AIDS research, made in Britain in 1989, was partly funded by the animal rights charity The Dr. Hadwen Trust for Humane Research. This discovery of how HIV enters human cells might not have been achieved, according to the research team headed by Prof. Jonathan Weber at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, if they had concentrated on experiments with chimpanzees and other animals, as did many of their medical colleagues.

So far as drug toxicity is concerned, the unreliability of safety-testing HIV drugs on other species has been confirmed by a seven-year study involving 84 laboratories worldwide, coordinated by the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Known as the Multicenter Evaluation of In vitro Cytotoxicology (MEIC) study, it shows that human cells are 22% more accurate in predicting toxicity than whole live laboratory animals. This makes testing new anti-HIV drugs on animals redundant. Human cell test give faster, more-precise results.

Moreover, because humans and animals react differently to drug therapies, there is the risk that animal testing might result in dangerous or ineffective anti-HIV drugs being approved and in less than fully efficacious doses being prescribed. Let us never forget the scandals of Opren, Thalidomide, and AZT, which were declared “safe” after extensive animal research.