A Lab Dog's Painful Life: Thousands of Man's Best Friends Are Still Used for Testing

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When they aren't helping researchers test potential new ways to attack cancer and heart disease, dogs are also being used to tell us at what point ingesting a pesticide is fatal.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has historically required pesticide toxicity tests using both rodent and non-rodent species, with dogs making up most of the latter. The agency used to require both a one-year and a 13-week study, but jettisoned the former in 2007 after determining that the longer study did not provide "additional, essential" information, according to a retrospective study. Standard EPA forms for the "acute oral toxicity and pathogenicity" test advise researchers to "state only the prominent clinical signs" of the animals after they've ingested the substance, and to "not dwell on clinical signs that are most likely due to agonal death."

Theodora Capaldo, president and director of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, says it wasn't just the time span of the tests that was redundant, but the requirement for a second, non-rodent species in the first place. She says recent studies have shown that adding "50 dogs or 25 dogs at the end of that long line of testing doesn't give us any new information that we didn't already have from just using rodents."

Like other advocates who oppose animal testing, Capaldo likes to point out the statistic that says that as many as 90 percent of pharmaceuticals tested on animals have adverse effects in humans, making animal testing an allegedly poor predictor.

"It's not only cruel, it's inaccurate," she says. "Science is progressing. Policy and attitude of researchers is not necessarily progressing as rapidly as the science is."

Capaldo points to human-cell-based tissue culture as the future of drug testing, something that's seconded by Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues at the Humane Society of the U.S.

Conlee is excited about the Tissue Chip for Drug Screening initiative, a collaboration among the National Institutes of Health, the FDA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The initiative hopes to develop 3-D "human tissue chips" modeled on human organs, which, according to the NIH's website, could "predict whether a candidate drug, vaccine or biological agent is safe or toxic in humans in a faster and more cost-effective way than current methods."

"Our argument," Conlee says, "is this technology is only going to continue to improve, where the animal models will always have their limitations."

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