The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

AIDS Coalition Clashes with Animal Rights Activists

by Erin Cassin

A group arguing that animal testing is necessary in the development of AIDS drugs is challenging PETA’s opposition to the practice – but scientists and activists from a range of backgrounds fall on both sides.

Sept. 20, 2005 – The 25th anniversary of animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) brought out activists of more than one kind, as a coalition of advocates for AIDS patients chose the occasion to launch a campaign criticizing PETA’s stance against animal testing in medical research.

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PETA’s belief, as stated on the Virginia-based organization’s website, is that "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment." In line with this value system, the group condemns the use of animals in all medical research.

When it comes specifically to the issue of animal testing in AIDS research, PETA Vice President Dan Mathews told The NewStandard that "AIDS is an easy disease to avoid, but our government squanders millions on duplicative animal tests, rather than issue frank warnings, especially to young people."

It is the organization’s stance against animal research that has drawn the ire of a coalition known as Patient Advocates Against PETA (PAAP). To coincide with PETA's 25th Anniversary Gala and Humanitarian Awards Show that was held September 10 in Hollywood, PAAP released a letter written to actress and PETA member Charlize Theron, in which the AIDS activists told her, "You can choose to support the search for a cure to AIDS, or you can continue to support an organization that stands in our way."

“Part of the reason that I’ve been positive and healthy for 20 years, I’m sure, is the companionship of my dogs, and I think that that’s what really pulled me into the debate.” -- James Brown

Formed several weeks ago, PAAP is comprised of ACT UP DC and five California-based advocacy organizations: ACT UP Southern California, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, AIDS/HIV Health Alternatives, AmASSI and HIV Incarcerated Task Force. According to a statement released by the group, "Patient Advocates Against PETA is kicking off a campaign targeting Hollywood celebrities, calling them to account for their high-profile role in hindering the search for a cure to AIDS."

The coalition’s organizer, Dr. Geneviève Clavreul, said that she was motivated to take action partly because of the attention that the PETA anniversary garnered, but also because of her long-time work with scientists who are focused on developing vaccines for HIV.

"We are going to have to go to an animal model to do it," Clavreul said, "and I don’t want to have to be fighting every five minutes against PETA."

Not all activists involved with the HIV and AIDS movement, however, agree with Clavreul’s stance. "ACT UP San Francisco is staunchly opposed to animal testing," said Andrea Lindsay, member of the California-based organization dedicated to ending HIV and AIDS through direct action. "If we do not support racism, sexism, homophobia, why should we tolerate the abuse of animals?"

James Brown, who has been living with HIV for more than two decades, also opposes animal testing for HIV research and is a PETA member.

"Part of the reason that I’ve been positive and healthy for 20 years, I’m sure, is the companionship of my dogs, and I think that that’s what really pulled me into the debate," Brown said.

“I frankly would be appalled to see humans in Phase I trials being given drugs that have the potential for extreme toxicities or death.” -- Dr. Nancy Haigwood

Aside from his love of animals, Brown’s opposition to animal testing is also fueled by his desire to see HIV defeated. "I want a cure and when I see thousands and thousands, millions of dollars spent on animals that I know aren’t helping me – that, to me, is a waste," he said.

This argument that animal testing is wrong not just for ethical reasons, but also for scientific ones, is a stance embraced by organizations such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates alternatives to animal research and promotes the benefits of a vegetarian diet.

"We base our argument against animal research just as much on the scientific argument as on the ethical argument," said Dr. John Pippin, a medical research consultant for the Washington, DC-based organization comprised of approximately 5,000 physicians and 100,000 other members.

Since the main use of animals in drug testing is to deem the drug’s safety before it is given to humans in clinical trials, Pippin contended that this method is ineffective because only 8 percent of drugs tested safe in animals survive human trials and win FDA approval.

"The correlation is not perfect, in that a drug that passes animal safety testing and garners FDA [Investigational New Drug] approval will always be safe in humans," conceded scientist and Biological Mimetics co-founder George Lin. But he reminded critics that "most drugs fail in humans due to lack of efficacy."

Figures cited at a the National Institutes of Health Summit Workshop on Predictive Drug Toxicology in 2004 give a breakdown of the main factors keeping drugs from reaching the marketplace: 46 percent because of lack of efficacy, 17 percent because of animal toxicity, and 16 percent because of adverse reactions in humans.

“I don’t think we ought to be treating non-human animals any different than we treat other disenfranchised -- or less powerful, I should say -- groups in humans.” -- Dr. Jerry Vlasak

"Bottom line is that more often than not animal testing predicts safety and possible biological properties. There is no close second," said Dr. Peter Nara, who co-founded Biological Mimetics with Lin. The Maryland-based biotechnology company focuses on vaccine development, with AIDS as one of its primary targets.

Critics challenge Nara’s viewpoint, saying that modern science is now advanced enough to discard animal testing in favor of newer, more sophisticated alternatives.

"The whole notion of testing on animals or doing research on animals was viable when we knew so little, but today we’re trying to distinguish facts based on individual humans," commented C. Ray Greek, MD, president of the California-based Americans for Medical Advancement, a self-described patient advocacy group that opposes animal experimentation from a scientific standpoint, not an ethical one.

"Today, we are studying diseases at the genetic level, and at the genetic level, even a man and a woman are different -- and two species are incredibly different," Greek noted.

Greek believes that the time and money spent on animal testing could be better put toward human-based research involving technology, as well as in vitro methods that use testing in artificial environments outside living organisms. He and Pippin both pointed to positron emission tomography (PET) microdosing as a human-based research technology, in which a human subject is given a very small amount of a drug and then imaging techniques are used to follow it through the body.

"If you do this test, in combination with the usual clinical testing that we do and the usual in-vitro testing and so on and so on, that would give you a far safer drug supply than you have now," Greek said.

Pippin added that PET microdosing is a "dramatic example of how you can apply a superior test and eliminate animal testing at the same time."

However, as Lin pointed out, microdosing studies "are purposely designed not to cause toxicity." Thus, he said, "the true ‘safety’ of the drug used at a realistic dose cannot be obtained by such studies. Microdosing studies in humans cannot be used to bypass thorough preclinical animal studies and it would be dangerous to do so since the behavior of the drug at a therapeutic dose would be unknown."

Greek also proposed that the scientific community should be "looking at these drugs on a genetic basis." He said that genetic profiles of thousands of people should be collected and then the drug should be tested on each of the genetic profiles in vitro to see which genes are turned on and which are turned off.

"That’s what’s going to give us safe drugs for you as opposed to me as opposed to your mother… testing these drugs on your DNA and then your mother’s DNA and then my DNA," Greek commented.

Dr. Nancy Haigwood countered that the complex interactions that take place in the body cannot be predicted. "I frankly would be appalled to see humans in Phase I trials being given drugs that have the potential for extreme toxicities or death," she said.

Haigwood, who is the director of the viral vaccines program at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute and professor of pathobiology and microbiology at the University of Washington, explained that tests for toxicity must be done on every compound in a drug being considered. "That’s the main use of animals, really, in drug testing," she said.

Proponents of animal testing do not deny the validity of alternative research techniques that also include computer models and in vitro studies on human tissue samples, but say that these methods should be used in conjunction with animal testing.

"All these things are not used at the exclusion of other things," asserted laboratory animal veterinarian John Young, who serves as director of comparative medicine at the California-based Cedars-Sinai Research Institute. "They’re all used together and it’s a progressive process. If you take the animals out of that stepwise progression, the whole thing falls apart." Young is also chairman of Americans for Medical Progress, a Virginia-based organization that advocates the use of animals in biomedical research.

Aside from toxicity testing, animals are also used in research studies to gain information for drug development. Again, critics like Greek and Pippin feel that animal-based research conducted for this purpose is ineffective, pointing to HIV research as an example. "Between in vitro research and human clinical research, that’s where the advances in HIV treatment have come from," Greek noted.

Pippin agreed, asserting that not one useful HIV medication has been developed from animal studies in more than two decades of research.

Haigwood, who uses animal models in her research, said it is true that "we didn’t need animals to get all these drugs for HIV… because we knew what the mechanism was, we knew what the compound was… so there was very little risk in using antiviral drugs without animal model testing."

But, she said, "they did go through toxicity testing [on animals]."

Although Haigwood conceded that the argument about the inessential role of animal models in the development of useful HIV drugs is a "strong one," she did point to one specific example where animal-based research played a role in the development of a drug that is now used in HIV treatment. The drug, PMPA, was tested on macaque monkeys in an experiment conducted in the mid-1990s by Dr. Che-Chung Tsai, and his research colleagues at the University of Washington.

One animal rights activist, who has used the scientific argument against animal experimentation, does agree that animal research has produced some benefits for humankind. "They have discovered things in animals that have been useful in human beings. It’s rare, but it does happen," commented Dr. Jerry Vlasak.

"To be quite honest with you, I don’t really care too much about the scientific argument because I don’t really care whether it’s scientifically valid or not," stated Vlasak, who is a press officer for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office (NAALPO). "I think it’s important to make the moral arguments because I think those are the important ones." The California-based organization serves as a liaison between the press and various groups in the underground animal liberation movement that engage in illegal direct actions on behalf of captive animals, according to the NAALPO website.

"I don’t think we ought to be treating non-human animals any different than we treat other disenfranchised -- or less powerful, I should say -- groups in humans," Vlasak asserted. "I think people with AIDS, many of them are homosexual -- should be even more aware of oppression."

As for PAAP organizer Clavreul, she is opposed to cosmetic testing on animals. "I think that’s totally inappropriate," she said. "But I feel research for deadly diseases - like HIV and AIDS, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, and all of that -- I think there is a place for it, I think it is essential."

Lindsay of ACT UP San Francisco disagreed, stating, "None of us want to see suffering and death. We just extend that courtesy to those outside of our species. Caging, cutting, poisoning, and killing animals is simply not the answer."

Frankie Trull of the Foundation for Biomedical Research contended that "scientists are continually looking for new ways in which the number of animals involved in research can be decreased or phased out altogether." Trull, who is president of the Washington, DC-based animal research advocacy group, does insist, however, that "animals will continue to play a vital role in research for decades to come."

In the meantime, the debate surrounding animal testing continues. Those on both sides of the divide, however, do agree that people should inform themselves before deciding where they stand on the issue.

"I don’t think that people who are for animal testing are uncompassionate, I think that they are uneducated," PETA member Brown said.

Added Clavreul, "Education is the key. Then let people make the decision."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Erin Cassin is a contributing journalist.

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