According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, Americans are firmly divided when it comes to the use of animals in health research. In an era with no shortage of topics where nearly equal numbers of Americans hold polar opposite views, this news likely comes as little surprise. Nevertheless, split opinions on this particular issue should cause serious alarm.
Animal-based research has been under constant assault 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 needed.
For the most part, science organizations and research institutions have remained silent. They have failed to communicate to the public how animal research remains an irreplaceable part of the process that leads to the development of new treatments and cures.
In an effort to shift public opinion even further, animal rights activists recently launched a new campaign. They’re attempting to portray publicly funded animal-based studies as a form of “taxpayer waste” that should be cut from the federal budget.
But do they have a point? Is animal research wasteful?
Consider a medical procedure recently developed at Boston Children’s Hospital to replace infants’ heart tissue that was profoundly injured by a heart attack. Through studies in pigs and rabbits, surgeons 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, meaning there are no transplant rejection concerns.
Three years ago, the first human patient— a newborn with severe heart damage — received the surgery. The results were profound and almost immediate. Within two days, the baby’s heart recovered and was beating normally. The researchers have since treated a total of 12 patients with this therapy, called mitochondrial transplantation. Although three of these patients were too sick to recover, the others are alive and thriving today
Nearly equally amazing is the fact that this advancement 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 simple math. The $1.7 million grant funded the ability to save nine infants at the cost of $190,035.22 per baby. Is that a waste of taxpayer money? No parent in America would think so.
However, we’re not just talking about nine lives here. With every infant that continues to be saved using this therapy, the “cost per baby” dwindles. And, while the procedure is currently only available to babies, researchers are working on testing a similar therapy for adults who suffered cardiac damage as the result of a heart attack. About 735,000 Americans suffer heart attacks each year and heart disease costs are predicted to top $1.1 trillion by 2035. The “cost per adult” of this discovery will eventually plummet while also repaying Americans in the thousands of lives it saves.
The mitochondrial transplantation breakthrough is just one example of countless animal–based discoveries that improve, extend and even save lives. Polio was eradicated in the U.S. thanks to vaccine development in monkeys and mice. Studies in mice and dogs have helped us combat several forms of cancer. The use of insulin to treat diabetes also came about thanks to research in dogs and rabbits.
A promising Ebola vaccine is currently being tested following development in monkeys. Epilepsy is now manageable thanks to a variety of anti-seizure medications developed by studying rodents, rabbits and monkeys. Those diagnosed with HIV now remain healthy and survive for decades thanks to drugs developed in mouse and monkey studies and we are now gradually moving closer to a possible HIV vaccine.
According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, vaccinations among Americans born in the last 20 years will prevent 322 million illnesses and will save $1.4 trillion in direct and indirect costs over their lifetime. These are advancements that couldn’t have been made without publicly funded, animal-based research. The returns on taxpayer investment now will be astronomical later.
Continuing to fund animal-based research with taxpayer dollars is not only a smart investment. It’s also the right thing to do.
Amanda M. Dettmer is an associate research scientist at the Yale Child Study Center who studies nonhuman primate models of child development. Follow her on twitter at @amanda_dettmer.