So Long Lab Rat

Have you ever pondered how science tests anti-depressants? For starters, an extremely forlorn test rat is required – hey, I have an idea, we’ll hang it by the tail until utter despair renders lab rat catatonic. In the interest of science, patiently monitor despondent rat for a few more days – lab rat mustn’t exhibit signs of hope or salvation. Cheer up suicidal rat – science deems you clinically depressed, and help is on the way. Sorry about your impalement, on the bright side take this shot of anti-depressant, if all goes well you’ll see the upside of your predicament.

Animal testing is hardly new, Greeks and Romans performed dissections on living animals to study circulatory systems. Ancient physicians practiced on animal subjects before applying techniques to human patients, Insulin was a direct result of Frederick Banning tying off the pancreatic glands dogs in 1921. Of the 98 Nobel Prizes awarded for physiology and medicine, 75 were direct results of research based on animal testing and experimentation. In 1981, Roger W Sperry, David H Hubel and Torsten N Wiesel were awarded the prize for brain function research using chimpanzees. By severing nerves between the left and right sides of the brain, they proved each side continued to learn, however sharing information between sides was impossible. Unfortunate Chimps (with almost 98% of their DNA matching humans)had no say in the matter.

In 1937, a American pharmaceutical company made a drug to treat strep infections, the manufacturing process required the use of a solvent at one stage – unknowingly using a substance poisonous to humans – over 100 people died, forcing creation of the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act – mandatory testing on animals became law.

I don’t have the stomach to parade a string of horror stories or post images of lab animals having a real bad day. Any reasonable person surely understands life isn’t always fair or pretty, animal testing is a complicated issue, certainly not one you can dismiss with black or white points of view. Questions of ethics and morality v. benefits and advancement, never reside outside contentious clouds of gray. I abhor the thought of animal cruelty. Like anything, there are genuine researchers with codes of conduct to match, and profit driven renegades with unscrupulous disregard for anything other than their own interests.

Lets ponder something less depressing – researchers at Kings College London have grown human skin from stem cells.  Unlike previous test tube epidermis – grown from cells removed in biopsies – Kings created “reprogrammed” cells – a process allowing unlimited production of epidermis. Infinite production of second rate skin wouldn’t do, these researchers figured out you needed to grow skin in low humidity, a genius tweak resulting in skin with a moisture barrier. I won’t  pretend to understand the science, but understand the magnitude of test tube skin with a moisture barrier behaving precisely as human skin.

Claiming an end to lab rats is a bit premature – applauding an innovation poised to eradicate millions of dead animals every year from cosmetic testing alone – that’s a step in the right direction.