This article, in a slightly edited form, first appeared on Pain News Network on November 16, 2019.
EPA’s Plan to Curtail Animal Research
People in pain rely on scientific advances to find safer, more effective alternatives to opioids, and animal research is key to all early drug development. A recent announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) threatens to change that, inhibiting science’s ability to replace opioids and create new life-saving pain interventions.
EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the agency’s decision on September 20, 2019 to “significantly curtail its reliance on the use of mammals in toxicological studies conducted to determine whether environmental contaminants have an adverse impact on human health.” His agency plans to reduce funding for most mammal studies by “30 percent by 2025 and eliminate them altogether by 2035.”
Ostensibly, Wheeler worries about the potential mistreatment of animals used in testing, but Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) scientist Jennifer Sass believes he may be politically motivated. In an NPR interview, Sass says, “The Trump administration appears to be working on behalf of the chemical industry and not the public.”
Putting Human Health at Risk
Most likely, the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical companies, would prefer to eliminate mammal studies that could prove the toxicity of their products. Wheeler, however, claims he hasn’t talked to “a single chemical company about this.”
He has announced that five universities, including Johns Hopkins University, Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Oregon State University, and the University of California, Riverside, “will receive $4.25 million in funding to develop non-animal testing alternatives.”
However, according to The New York Times, the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, and the American Medical Association disagree with Wheeler’s strategy. Lab-grown cells and computer modeling can reduce the need for animal testing. But Penelope Fenner-Crisp, a former senior official at the EPA, believes 2035 may be too soon to ban all animal studies. She states, “There’s currently no substitute for [testing] some of the more complex and sophisticated toxicities, such as the effect of chemicals on animals’ reproductive systems.”
The NRDC, an environmental advocacy group, also opposes the EPA’s plan to ban animal testing on the grounds that, “Phasing out foundational scientific testing methods can make it much harder to identify toxic chemicals — and protect human health.”
Animal Research Is Key to Medical Advancements
Dr. Henry S. Friedman, an academic adult and pediatric neuro-oncologist, leads the opposition to the EPA decision. He explains, “Virtually everything a doctor, nurse, veterinarian, veterinary technician, paramedic, or pharmacist can give the injured or sick was made possible by animal research.” He says this includes medicines, advanced surgical techniques, treatments, and therapies that are used for humans and other species.
Animal research, Dr. Friedman points out, is responsible for technologies such as MRIs, ultrasounds, and CT scans. It has also played an integral role in the development of vaccines, pain (and other) medication, and life-saving emergency care. (He also provides a “myth versus reality” look at the health and welfare of laboratory animals.)
As Dr. Friedman says, sophisticated computers can be helpful in many areas of exploratory scientific research, but they “can’t predict everything a new drug will do once inside you.”
Speaking of Research, an international advocacy group that provides information about the importance of animal research in medical and veterinary science, believes the EPA’s plan endangers human, animal, and environmental health. The organization says, “This directive flies in the face of the EPA’s mission to ‘protect human health and the environment’ and ‘to ensure that national efforts to reduce environmental risks are based on the best available scientific information.’ Animal-based research and testing is critical for understanding how new chemicals and environmental substances affect human and non-human animals.”
Many of us in the scientific community oppose the EPA decision on the basis that it will slow drug development and threaten our ability to find safer and more effective treatments for pain, addiction, and many other diseases. If the EPA decision is sustained, it will be a major obstacle to the advancement of medical science.
Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, “The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary, “It Hurts Until You Die.” Opinions expressed here are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views or policy of PRA Health Sciences.
You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.