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We can balance animal research, animal rights

Three Views • Medical studies with animals have shaped our health, future
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Some animal rights advocates believe higher primates should not be used for medical research. These rhesus monkeys are being studied by scientists at the Oregon National Primate Research Center who hope to find a link between obesity in pregnant monkeys and diseases in their offspring.

Too often, those opposed to health research in animals portray the complex subject as a black-and-white issue. They claim that if you support animal research, you don't care about animals.

However, researchers, veterinarians, animal care staff and physicians across Oregon Health and Science University disagree.

A balance can be achieved. Breakthroughs that benefit both humans and animals can and do take place without allowing animals to suffer. In fact, several layers of laws and policies are in place to ensure just that (New law school program unleashes animal rights, Nov. 24).

Benefits of animal research surround us. In fact, these benefits flow through our veins. We've all received vaccinations to prevent horrible diseases that once caused early death or serious illness. Thanks to vaccine research in animals, you only encounter diseases such as smallpox, measles and polio in history books - not on our streets.

But that's not all. Animal research has led to blood and organ transplants. It helped pioneer heart surgeries and cancer treatments, and here at OHSU, perhaps one of the most promising AIDS vaccine candidates to date. Mountains of evidence published in countless medical journals during the past 60 years illustrate the benefits of animal research.

Those opposed to animal studies might claim that research should be limited to rodents, fish or insects. However, limitations such as these fail to address a key requirement of health research: that you study diseases utilizing methods with the greatest promise of translating to humans.

Research in mice and rats is valuable and irreplaceable. Studying complex health problems in animals with more simple health systems helps researchers focus their efforts and locate promising avenues for fighting disease. However, before we test these new approaches in humans - our spouses, our parents, our kids - we must first ensure that for health and safety reasons, we understand the benefits and risks in an animal more similar to humans than a mouse or a rat.

There are several examples that clearly illustrate this need. For instance, stem cell therapies, which have the ability to replace diseased cells with healthy ones, have been greatly accelerated thanks to research conducted at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. This research has also revealed differences between mice and humans that make these breakthroughs unachievable without the use of monkeys.

Another example of the need for animal studies lies within the OHSU Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute's AIDS research unit. HIV is a mutated form of a monkey virus called SIV. With this connection in mind, OHSU researchers created a vaccine candidate that can wipe out all signs of SIV in a large percentage of animals.

Given the relationship between SIV and HIV, we and many other researchers believe there is a strong likelihood these findings will translate into saving human lives.

How significant would that be? According to the World Health Organization, more than 34 million people have contracted the HIV virus. More than one-third of babies born in low- and middle-income countries are already infected. We believe the loss of a very small number of animals, treated humanely and closely cared for, is a morally responsible tradeoff to save millions.

On the topic of ethics, animal welfarists at OHSU and at other leading health universities have spent countless hours debating the subject. In fact, the debate takes place on a daily basis in internal/external oversight groups called Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees. These groups, made up of veterinarians, animal care experts, researchers and members of the public, are charged with reviewing every research project in animals. If this group says no, the research doesn't take place. If this group requires changes to the way research animals are cared for, these changes must occur before research begins.

We agree with critics that major changes are necessary when it comes to animal studies. Universities, government bodies, disease advocacy groups, patients, doctors and pharmaceutical companies need to stand up and start talking about the irreplaceable need for animal studies.

We must also demonstrate that research animals are well cared for. After all, this is a life-and-death matter and one that all Americans should be well aware of.

Nancy Haigwood, Ph.D., is director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Washington County.