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76% of Nobel prizewinners in medicine performed research on animals

"It is possible to reconcile respect for animals with dignity for human persons", affirms Enrique Sueiro, who recently obtained his Ph.D.

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FOTO: Manuel Castells
21/01/08 20:25 Mª Pilar Huarte

Since Dr. Emil von Behring received the Nobel Prize in 1901 for his discovery of diphtheria antiplasma, tested in guinea pigs, 144 of the 189 Nobel Prizes in Medicine (76% of the total) received the award thanks to animal research. Many decisive medical advances which have aided humanity (vaccines, analgesics, transfusions, anesthesia and transplants) were developed through the use of animal testing.

These data are found in the Ph.D. dissertation by Enrique Sueiro, Director of Communications for the Center for Applied Medical Research (CIMA) of the University of Navarra. The author illustrates this evolution via cases such as the discovery of the insulin hormone, in 1921, after research performed on the canine pancreas: "That discovery gave the Nobel to Frederick G. Banting and John Macleod and, more importantly, today permits that thousands of persons may live with diabetes instead of dying from the disease."

The dissertation, entitled "Biomedical Communication in Research with Animals," which was directed by the Chair Professor Alfonso Nieto, is one of the first studies in Spanish concerning this controversial topic. Enrique Sueiro analyzed the positions of those supporting and opposing scientific experimentation with animals. Therefore, the study brought together the position of the majority of scientists, who emphasize the need for animal experimentation, along with the position of those who oppose this experimentation, such as the writer Peter Singer or movements such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

In addition, Enrique Sueiro denounces "aberrations committed against animals under the aegis of scientific research." The dissertation includes past cases involving researchers "whose methods for inducing psychopathologies in young monkeys revealed a willingness to cause extreme suffering, which is contrary to the human condition." As the dissertation explains, the current ethical-legal framework, based on increasing social sensibility, excludes and punishes all types of cruelty to laboratory animals. "Citizens need information and context in order to understand the multifaceted world of scientific research. It seems reasonable to find a golden mean between the reactions based on emotions and arguments which omit affective aspects. By managing public perceptions with skill and honesty, we can aid in producing this harmony between data and emotions. We can combine respect for animals with dignity for human persons."

The 3 R's: Reduce, Replace and Refine

In his opinion, a balanced criterion is that which is known in the biomedical sector as the "Three R's": reduce the number of animals to a minimum, replace their use whenever possible with other reliable methods of verification, and refine their treatment and conditions. In numbers, it is estimated that 50 million animals are used each year in research; in the case of Spain, the total number was 595,597 animals in 2005.

The dissertation, defended at the School of Communication, detailed the legal controls for performing research on animals in the United Kingdom, the country with the most strict legislation. In addition, it analyzes British statistics on animal experimentation, which show a decrease in the number of animals used for scientific purposes, from 5.5 million in the 70's, to 3 million in 2006. By types, the breakdown is: rats, mice and other rodents (83%), fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds (14%), rabbits and other small mammals (0.7%), sheep, cows, pigs and other large mammals (1.9%), dogs and cats (0.3%) and monkeys (0.1%). Enrique Sueiro emphasized that "countries with weak legal control and less transparency are susceptible to greater abuses against animals."

Over the course of 5 years, this researcher of Biomedical Communication of the University of Navarra has performed research stays at, or brief visits to, some twenty institutions, such as the National Cancer Institute and the Massachusetts Medical Society, in the USA; and the Institute of Neurology of University College London and the Research Defence Society, in the United Kingdom. In addition, he has interviewed journalists specialized in science with newspapers such as The New York Times.