Basic Research With Animals Is Not Immoral — It Is Imperative

In an article for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, writer Tali Woodward writes about the controversy surrounding the University of California San Francisco’s animal research program. In September, UCSF agreed to pay $92,500 to settle a number of outstanding charges brought against it under the Animal Welfare Act.

Woodward provides a fairly balanced account of animal research until the very end when she resorts to calling for a utilitarian analysis to judge the morality of animal research,

Polls show that the American public supports animal research — but only when efforts are made to contain animal suffering. So it seems almost instinctual that experimenting on animals should require weighing the pain and suffering of animals against the potential to understand and ultimately cure disease.

. . .

. . . But the central question posted during this [experiment approval] process is: Is this a valid line of scientific inquiry, one that might yield knowledge?

And that is the only question that should be asked.

Woodward’s question — how likely is this experiment to produce a cure or improved understanding of a disease — is that with very few exceptions any given experiment is incredibly unlikely to produce the sort of information she demands. Science just does not work like this.

Medical research is not a 60 minute-long TV episode in which the protagonist performs a single test and has a miracle cure for the latest ailment after the next commercial break. Rather, medical knowledge tends to advance slowly, with information accreting from a diverse range of experiments and published studies.

Consider, for example, animal research into spinal cord injuries. Not a single one of those experiments, to my knowledge, could be said to have met Woodward’s criteria. For the most part, such research kills animals for relatively marginal increases in knowledge. Examined separately, using Woodward’s test, almost none of these experiments would have been justified.

But, taken together, the research on spinal cord injuries over the last couple decades has made significant advances in understanding why nerve tissues in the spinal cord do not regenerate and how they might be spurred on to do so. Even with this advance in knowledge, however, we are still many years from any sort of cure that can heal such injuries.

In fact, the one set of experiments that Woodward seems impressed by was based simply on furthering scientific knowledge rather than solving a specific problem, although it would later be used to solve a problem to great success.

Here’s Woodward’s version of the story,

In the 1950s Dr. John Clements, then working in Boston, experimented on animals to ascertain how lungs work in newborn humans. He found that most animals have a substance called surfactant in their lungs that helps them breathe. But premature babies, who often struggle with breathing, lack the lung goop.

By the late 1980s Clements had moved to UCSF, where he worked with other researchers to develop a synthetic surfactant. When it was made widely available in 1990, the number of premature babies dying from respiratory problems was cut in half.

The first paragraph is largely untrue. Clements did experiment on animals and was the first to discover lung surfactant, but he did so largely because he was curious about the mechanical functioning of the lungs. In fact, Clements research was so far out of the mainstream of lung research that his paper summarizing his findings was initially rejected by Science.

As an article for The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal notes (emphasis added),

Dr. Avery’s much admired colleague at Johns Hopkins University, pathologist Peter Gruenwald, was one of the rare scientists in this group. So was her co-author on the 1959 paper, Dr. Jere Mead, head of a respiratory physiology laboratory at the Harvard School of Public Health. But the scientist who actually proved that surfactant existed and precisely measured how it performed was Dr. John Clements, a physiologist then working at the United States Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Maryland.

When Dr. Avery heard that Dr. Clements had identified surfactant, she instinctively knew it was the missing piece of the hyaline membrane disease puzzle. During her Christmas vacation, Dr. Avery drove from Boston to Maryland to meet with Dr. Clements. “The gift I gave her,” Dr. Clements later wrote, “was a demonstration of my homemade…balance [for measuring the effect of the hitherto only suspected surfactant material] and an exposition of everything I knew about lung physiology.”

The following Christmas, Drs. Avery and Mead–an old colleague of Dr. Clements–gifted him in return. Publication of Avery and Mead’s widely heralded article abruptly ended what Dr. Clements has called the “monastic era” of lung surface tension and surfactant research. No longer were he and other scientists working in the shadows, their research of interest only to students of lung mechanics. What had seemed theoretical, esoteric research–perhaps even useless research–now had been shown by Drs. Avery and Mead to have immediate, powerful clinical applications.

Dr. Clements’ research was exactly the sort of research that Woodward implies would be unacceptable — research done on animals with little or no prospect that it would ever have any sort of application in treating human health problems.


Bubbles, Babies and Biology: The Story of Surfactant. Sylvia Wrobel, The FASEB Journal, 2004; 18:1624e.

Animal instincts. Tali Woodward, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, September 28-October 4, 2005.

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