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By Jill Howard-Church
Because the scientific skirmishes over the use of animals in experiments never end, I find it worthwhile to regularly check in and check up on the organizations that promote vivisection. One of the most vocal is the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), whose acronym is pronounced as in “Won’t you be my _______.” But you wouldn’t want to borrow a cup of sugar from these “neighbors,” and it would take more than a spoonful to swallow what they’re selling.
A recent visit to the NABR Web site showed a video campaign they are heavily promoting for 2009. NABR has produced a 60-second spot that they’re running on YouTube in hopes of getting one million hits. It’s called “Jen’s Story,” and it features a biomedical researcher who is studying breast cancer in rodents, while she fights the disease within her own body. In the video, wearing her lab coat and cradling a live rat in her hands, she talks about how she’s "a daughter, a sister, a wife and a best friend" as well as a breast cancer survivor. “I am fighting for you,” she says. “I am fighting for me.” And then she nuzzles the nose of the rat in her hands while cooing a bit of baby talk to her, and the clip ends. With NABRs like that, who needs Mister Rogers? Animal research seems as benign and benevolent as can be.
But anyone who knows what really goes on in animal research labs knows that nuzzling is rarely in the protocol. In a lab (far from public view), researchers take a group of mice or rats who have either been genetically altered to be predisposed to a certain disease or who have had their immune systems suppressed, and then human cancer cells are injected into or grafted onto the animals’ bodies to induce the disease. The mice or rats are then exposed to various drugs or chemicals, and eventually the animals end up on a dissection tray once they have either died of the disease or have been killed by the researchers. Not that NABR’s video shows Jen doing any of that, of course; it might stain both her lab coat and her image.
Nor does NABR mention the shortcomings of using rodents as breast cancer “models,” although critiques abound. For example, an article titled “Modelling breast cancer: One size does not fit all,” published in Nature Reviews in 2007, cites a research panel that examined the use of genetically engineered mice (GEMs) in breast cancer experiments and “…warn[ed] that because of the diversity of human breast cancer and species differences, individual genetically engineered mouse models should not be expected to faithfully recapitulate all aspects of the human disease.” The review also notes that “compared to rodent cells, human cells are frequently perceived as having more ‘relevance to human disease’ owing to the fundamental differences between organisms.” (Who'd have thought?) The complexities, cruelties and critiques of the use of nonhuman animals to study human diseases are absent from NABR’s videos, newsletters, blogs and other communications because the group is not so much about supporting biomedical research as it is about perpetuating animal research, which is only one avenue of scientific inquiry, and a faulty one at that.
Animal advocates also want cures for breast cancer and all other diseases, for ourselves, our “daughters, sisters, wives, best friends” and everyone else. We don’t want people to suffer, but we don’t want animals to suffer either. And with strong scientific evidence supporting us, we do not accept the premise of pro-vivisection groups like NABR that it's necessary to make one group of individuals suffer – by the billions – in order to spare another group. Jen’s rat doesn’t have to die in order for her or anyone else to live.
Don’t let NABR’s propaganda fool you: as a society, we can fight disease and fight for ethical research at the same time.
Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.
To see how rats and mice are treated in labs, visit our image gallery.
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