Scott King Comments on a Controversial Issue: the Exploitation of Animals in Medical Research.

No issue affecting our work generates more passion than the use of animals in medical research. I have had e-mails from people wondering whether it was really necessary for Islet Sheet Medical to experiment on animals. It is necessary, and I think that those of us who sponsor such research have failed to forthrightly defend it.

First, why do we do it? Because we are trying to cure diabetes and this disease is a disease of the whole organism. It makes no sense to say a cell or even a liver has diabetes. The disease is caused by a defect of the liver as well as the failure of the muscles and fat cells to respond correctly to the insulin signal. So no model smaller than the whole organism models diabetes.

And since large and small mammals handle glucose differently we cannot use small mammals such as mice. Mice are small so the contents of their blood turns over much more quickly that in a human or dog. In fact, mice don't need any extra insulin to respond normally to glucose! This is the reason that so many mice have been cured of diabetes but so few dogs.

The role of the pancreas in making the "anti-diabetes hormone" was discovered by Minkowski in 1889 through dog experiments. And more recently the Edmonton protocol was proven in dog experiments. The dog is the classic model of diabetes and has taught us the most about the disease.

Before we do any experiments on any animals the protocols must be reviewed and approved by animal experimentation committees associated with the research university. (We are not licensed to do animal research ourselves.) The rules are strict and are designed to minimize pain and distress for the animals and ensure that the experiments are necessary and will yield important information. The process is so demanding that it is thought to be easier to get institutional approval for a clinical trial on human volunteers than on animals.

Why is that? Because the standard for humans is informed consent. If I explained to you the risks of an Islet Sheet implant, and you believed you understood them, you could decide for yourself if you are willing to take the risk for the possible reward of euglycemia. Dogs are not capable of informed consent. We must protect them. And our obligation to protect them comes from our humane values, not from rights inherent in dogs.

But these protections have in some cases become extreme, particularly in research of dogs. This is in part due to the affections people develop for their pets. No animal pound in California, for instance, will permit dogs to be given up for experimentation. The idea is that no pet will ever be the subject of experiments. Mind you, these are animals that will be killed (or "put down", to use the current euphemism). In the U.S. 10 million dogs are killed by dog pounds each year. And these animals are not available for research. Instead, researchers are required to use purpose-bred animals. These come from facilities that exist to breed dogs for experiments. This arrangement is morally vacuous and needs to be reformed. At the very least stray animals and pets with the consent of their human companions should be available for studies.

Finally, some suggest that biology has reached the point where we can do everything we need to in computers and test tubes. "Bioinformatics" enthusiasts want us to believe that, but it is not true. They work by analogy with genes and proteins that have established functions but they cannot from the sequence information alone figure what anything does.

Diabetes research produces a good example. Recently a new gene (PTP-1B) was found that seems to crop up in people with diabetes more often that chance would predict. It codes for a protein that seems to handle signals within the cell and no one has a clue what it does. Perhaps in time they will figure it out, but that will happen through traditional biology requiring animal research.

We want to cure diabetes. The best animal model for type 1 diabetes is the pancreatectomized dog. I believe that if dogs could understand what they are being asked to do - no more than human diabetic volunteers will be when w start trials - we could and for their consent. Since consent is impossible, we humans are responsible for their welfare.

Scott R. King

Ask Scott

Your Thoughts

Discuss this letter in the Open Forum

Archived letters