Peter Singer, Vioxx, and the Future of Animal Testing

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Peter Singer, Vioxx, and the Future of Animal Testing

By Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D.

Of all human enterprises, none more profoundly illustrates our deep-seated sense of superiority, or a failure of ethics, than the use of animals in product and drug testing. As if systematically watching and taking notes while animals die slowly isn't bad enough, it's also a process that's deeply flawed scientifically.

In a provocative article published this week in Forbes magazine, the renowned philosopher Peter Singer predicts that animal advocates are destined to surpass the considerable political clout of the National Rifle Association. In an ideal world, the imperative against committing violence to animals should be a no-brainer over gunning for the right to pack heat in public places.

Singer predicts a number of other advances for the animal cause by the year 2020, including: a crackdown on puppy mills, new incentives to adopt animals from shelters rather than paying breeders, school lunch programs that promote vegetarian meals, and live webcams in slaughterhouses, factory farms and other places where animals are especially vulnerable to abuse.

He also predicts stricter controls over animal use in research. I hope he's right. Of all human enterprises, none more profoundly illustrates our deep-seated sense of superiority, or a failure of ethics, than the use of animals in product and drug testing. As if systematically watching and taking notes while animals die slowly isn't bad enough, it's also a process that's deeply flawed scientifically. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported in 2005 that the failure rate of drugs tested safe and effective in preclinical studies (including animal tests) is 92 percent, and that this failure rate has increased from 86 percent in 1985, despite all efforts to improve animal modeling for drug testing.

Furthermore, according to a General Accounting Office report, about half of the eight percent of drugs receiving FDA approval are later withdrawn or relabeled for serious or lethal adverse effects. The Center for Drug Evaluation and Research reported in 2005 that at least three-fourths of the remaining safe drugs are classified by FDA as "me-too" drugs that provide "little or no therapeutic gain" compared to currently available drugs.

Case in point: Vioxx. Eighty million prescriptions were written for this anti-inflammatory drug between 1999 when the FDA approved it, and 2004 when it was voluntarily withdrawn by its manufacturer, Merck and Co. Vioxx had tested safe in at least eight studies in African green monkeys and five other animal species. But it later killed an estimated 60,000 Americans and 140,000 persons worldwide from heart attacks and other adverse cardiovascular events.

In the year before it was withdrawn, Vioxx earned $2.5 billion for Merck. Merck reserved $970 million to pay for its Vioxx-related legal expenses through 2007, and has set aside $4.85 billion for legal claims from US citizens. As of 2006, there were 10,000 Vioxx cases and 190 class action suits.

Vioxx is a severe case, but by no means unique, as the above re-labeling and recall rates indicate.

There are other ways and the best of them is clinical testing with human patients. I recently attended a public lecture by Dr Susan Love, whose Army of Women has so far recruited 309,000 volunteers to participate in breast cancer studies. As Love says with a twinkle in her eye: women (unlike caged rats and mice) are hard to control. Her novel approach to clinical trials-by recruiting patients online and encouraging them to suggest studies-is stunningly successful. A recent call for 250 patients garnered over 62,000 respondents. Another study of chemotherapy and cognition needing 180 subjects ended up with 16,446 respondents, 1,314 of whom paid their own way to Stanford University to take part.

In light of the scientific and ethical problems associated with it, I hope Singer's prediction falls way short of reality. Animal testing is anthropocentric, anachronistic, and cruel. It should have gone out with Vioxx.