According to a recent Pew Research Center surveyAmericans are strongly divided on the use of animals in health research. At a time when there is no shortage of topics where an almost equal number of Americans hold opposing views, this news probably comes as no surprise. Nonetheless, the divided opinions on this particular issue should be of serious concern.
Animal research has been under constant attack by various activist organizations for several decades. These groups seek to convince Americans that, despite a remarkable track record of success, animal studies are no longer necessary.
For the most part, scientific organizations and research institutes have remained silent. They have failed to explain to the public that animal research remains an irreplaceable part of the process that leads to the development of new treatments and cures.
In an effort to further change public opinion, animal rights activists recently launched a new campaign. They are attempting to portray publicly funded animal studies as a form of “taxpayer waste” that should be removed from the federal budget.
But are they right? Is animal research a waste?
Consider a newly developed medical procedure at Boston Children’s Hospital to replace heart tissue in infants that have been deeply injured by a heart attack. Through studies in pigs and rabbits, surgeons have developed a technique to transplant mitochondria – the so-called energy plants that power individual cells – from healthy tissue to unhealthy tissue. Each patient serves as both donor and recipient, which means there is no problem with transplant rejection.
Three years ago, the first human patient, a newborn baby with severe heart damage, was operated on. The results were profound and almost immediate. Within two days, the baby’s heart recovered and was beating normally. Researchers have since treated a total of 12 patients with this therapy, called mitochondrial transplantation. Although three of these patients were too ill to recover, the rest are alive and thriving today.
Almost equally amazing is the fact that this breakthrough was made possible by a single NIH-funded animal research study totaling $ 1,710,317. The dollars funded the research project that led to the discovery of the therapy and saved the lives of nine babies.
Calculating the initial benefits of this miraculous discovery is a simple calculation. The $ 1.7 million grant funded the ability to save nine infants at a cost of $ 190,035.22 per infant. Is it a waste of taxpayers’ money? No parent in America would think so.
However, we’re not just talking about nine lives here. With each infant who continues to be saved through this therapy, the “cost per baby” decreases. And, while the procedure is currently only available for babies, researchers are working to test similar therapy for adults who have suffered heart damage from a heart attack. About 735,000 Americans suffer from heart attacks each year, and heart disease costs are expected to exceed $ 1.1 trillion by 2035. The “cost per adult” of this discovery will eventually collapse while paying Americans back for the thousands of lives it saves.
The breakthrough in mitochondrial transplantation is just one example of the myriad animal discoveries that improve, extend and even save lives. Polio was eradicated in the United States through the development of vaccines in monkeys and mice. Studies in mice and dogs have helped us fight several forms of cancer. The use of insulin to treat diabetes has also emerged from research in dogs and rabbits.
A promising vaccine against Ebola is currently being tested after its development in monkeys. Epilepsy is now manageable thanks to a variety of anti-seizure drugs developed by studying rodents, rabbits and monkeys. People diagnosed with HIV now stay healthy and survive for decades thanks to drugs developed in mouse and monkey studies and we are gradually moving closer to a possible HIV vaccine.
According to Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, vaccinations for Americans born in the past 20 years will prevent 322 million illnesses and save $ 1.4 trillion in direct and indirect costs over their lifetimes. These are advances that could not have been made without state-funded animal research. The returns on taxpayer investment now will be astronomical later.
Continuing to fund animal research with taxpayer dollars is not just a smart investment. It is also the right thing to do.
Amanda M. Dettmer is an associate researcher at the Yale Child Study Center studying patterns of child development in non-human primates. Follow her on Twitter at @amanda_dettmer.