Are Animal Advocates Biting the Hand of Dedicated Docs?

Article excerpt

Biomedical researchers, under increasing attack from militant activists, are pleading for a balance between animal right and animal research. Celebrities, however, are complicating matters.

Image-conscious Hollywood celebrities have been known to embrace causes that make them seem public-spirited, including, mostly recently AIDS research and animal rights. But prominent scientists now are asserting that the two causes are mutually exclusive, charging that movie stars intent on protecting helpless animals actually are hampering the search for a cure for AIDS and other terrible afflictions.

"My message to people in Hollywood: Leave your AIDS ribbons at home," declared noted cardiologist Michael E. DeBakey, in the Wall Street Journal last December. "The patients, activists and families, as well as your fans -- and the scientists working hard on a cure -- deserve to know where you stand."

His plea has fallen on deaf ears. Pop-music stars such as Chrissie Hynde, Howard Jones, Lene Lovich, and the Indigo Girls promote animal rights. Paul McCartney has invited an animal-rights group to distribute literature on his concert tours. A well-publicized campaign, "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur," featuring supermodels Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell, undoubtedly has contributed to declining fur sales.

"Animal rights are accepted without questioning," says Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, or FBR, a Washington-based advocacy group. Such groups have a collective kitty of $1 billion a year to draw upon, says Trull, compared with FBR's $1 million annual budget. "It's very difficult to get people to contribute to basic science," she says. "But as soon as you show them a picture of a sad-eyed dog or a tortured kitten they'll put $20 in the mail to an animal-rights group right away."

Just what constitutes animal rights depends on who defines the term. According to Trull, animal-rights advocates are against the use of animals for any cause whatsoever -- not necessarily an exaggeration. "Our ultimate goal is empty cages and vegetarianism," says Jenny Woods, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, which boasts 500,000 members, three overseas offices and an annual budget of about $12 million. PETA also favors the abolition of zoos, regarding them as prisons for animals.

Trull, on the other hand, distinguishes between animal welfare and animal rights. After all, she says, no one is eager to see animals tormented or killed. "We are an animal-loving society." However, Trull contends that animal testing is necessary if cures for many diseases are to be found, arguing that animal experimentation has led to major medical discoveries related to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, breast cancer and heart disease.

"We're dealing with a scientifically uneducated public which is eager to believe that there is an alternative to animal research," says Dull. "If Joe Q. Public is told that epidemiological studies or computer models are adequate substitutes, how do they know any differently? Scientists can't explain what they're doing in 30-second sound bites."

Nevertheless, the biomedical community is under fire from animal-rights advocates like never before. "We don't accept the argument that animal experimentation is necessary for any human diseases," asserts Woods. Dental students can practice their techniques on 3-D computer models of a human mouth, and training surgeons have begun to use similar models. Toxicity studies that once required live animals now are conducted using multilayered skin cultures cloned to produce as much tissue as necessary.

In any event, Woods remains unconvinced that scientists can learn anything significant from "infecting an animal with a human disease and then trying to find a cure for it," adding that the results cannot be extrapolated to humans. …