Opinion: Cutting animal research would hurt humans

Matthew R. Bailey

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals just launched a new ad campaign aimed at an unlikely audience of one.

The organization wants President Donald Trump to slash funding for the National Institutes of Health. PETA claims the agency wastes money funding "experiments on animals that fail to produce cures or treatments for humans." So it paid a mobile billboard to drive around the president's Mar-a-Lago resort urging him to "Cut $15 Billion!" from the NIH budget.

PETA's regular publicity stunts may garner attention from the public, and even from the president. But they're utterly divorced from reality. Animal research is an irreplaceable step in the drug development process. Without such research, medical advances would grind to a halt — and countless patients would die of otherwise curable diseases.

Smallpox was finally eradicated in 1980 after scientists developed a vaccine thanks to research in cows.

Animal research has led to virtually every medical breakthrough that we now take for granted. Consider smallpox, which once ravaged the globe. In the century leading up to 1950, the disease claimed more than 500 million lives. The disease was finally eradicated in 1980 after scientists developed a vaccine thanks to research in cows.

Polio, too, would still be rampant if not for animal research. The disease caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis in the United States every year before the 1950s. American scientist Jonas Salk developed the first vaccine for the disease in 1954, building on decades of research in monkeys, mice, and cows. Now, polio is eliminated in every country worldwide but three.

These examples only scratch the surface. Consider the long line of breakthroughs made possible by animal research. A vaccine for malaria. Drugs for asthma, hypertension, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. Cancer treatments. Organ transplants. Kidney dialysis. The list goes on.

More than 80 percent of the 216 winners of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine employed animals in their research.

In the years ahead, animal research is poised to unlock new treatments for Alzheimer's, cancer, and other diseases. For example, scientists at Northwestern University just released promising animal trial results for a drug that could reverse high cholesterol and fatty liver disease.

Animal research doesn't just benefit humans; it helps animals, too. Vaccines for feline leukemia — which kills 85 percent of infected cats within three years of diagnosis — were developed in animal research models.

Such research has also yielded new immunotherapy treatments for dogs with osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer. A clinical trial found that 67 percent of dogs that received the treatment lived at least two years — a huge jump from the 28 percent of dogs that normally survive that long.

In other words, animal research has saved scores of our pets from an untimely end.

Activist groups like PETA often paint animal research as cruel. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Animal research is heavily regulated. The federal Animal Welfare Act sets rules for animal safety, housing, nutrition, and transport. For example, researchers must use anesthesia or analgesic drugs for procedures that may be painful. Research centers must also develop a special committee to oversee their work. Committee members ensure that the use of animals is justified and that researchers employ as few animals as possible.

Institutions that receive funding from the NIH, Food and Drug Administration, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are subject to even stricter rules.

The days of smallpox and polio are now a distant memory. One day, diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's could disappear, too -- as long as our leaders continue to adequately fund research and tune out fringe activists' uninformed rants.

Matthew R. Bailey is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research.