Diabetes and Animal Research

Insulin Nation recently had a conversation with a reader, Mary Clemens, about the moral conflicts of respecting animals’ rights while also benefiting from the research conducted on animals.

Q1. How long have you had Type 1 Diabetes?

Forty-four years.

Q2. Please describe your work as an advocate for animal rights.

I wouldn’t describe myself as an advocate, just a person who has become increasingly aware of the importance of the lives of animals and the debt that humans owe them. I translate that awareness into action by supporting my local humane society with donations. I’ve left a bequest to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) for their program to eliminate testing on animals in research. But, being human, I’m inconsistent. I’m still a meat-eater, although now I only buy meat from local farmers where I know the animals are humanely treated.

Q3. What sorts of moral conflicts do you experience as someone who both has T1D and supports animals? Have you always had these conflicts? Have they transformed over time?

I recognize the tremendous personal value animals used in experiments have had for me. Insulin from pigs for human use required the pigs’ sacrifice for my benefit. As I’ve aged and as technology has advanced, I’ve become more and more aware of what animals have been forced to give up for me. And, yes, I’ve become more conflicted. I believe that animals want what we all want—to live out our lives as nature intended. Despite the attention scientists give to the ethics of animal use in experimentation, many animals are living lives that are not suitable for their species. And I’ve become more hopeful, as technology advances, that there will soon be alternatives to the use of animals in research and experimentation.

Q4. Supporters of the use of animals in scientific research say that it’s a not a “free for all” against animals—in other words, there are guidelines in place to protect against abuse. Do you think these guidelines are adequate? Why or why not?

I appreciate the attention paid to ethical considerations. Those ethicists are making the hard decisions about whether the value of the experiment potentially outweighs the pain of the subjects. I’m sure they don’t take that lightly. I would prefer that greater attention be given to alternatives to the use of animals, something that HSUS and The Hastings Center, for example, explore. It seems to me that technology offers a built-in precision and accuracy that is harder to find in the animal kingdom where, relying on animal subjects, scientists must always deal with variability. Despite controls, one mouse is not the same as another. Why not exploit technology, especially given its potential to offer superior alternatives?

Q5. Supporters also point out that animals are among the primary beneficiaries of animal-based research and that many more animals live than die because of scientific testing on animals. For these stakeholders, the ends justify the means. What’s wrong with this idea?

For me, there are two dangers in any “end justifies the means” argument. First, the basic idea is that it’s okay for someone to decide who thrives and who dies. You have to regard yourself as somewhat Olympian to feel comfortable with that, and I don’t find any gods among us here. And, two, this kind of thinking precludes exploration of alternatives. If there’s a great benefit that derives from a “small” sacrifice, as this line of thought prescribes, then where is the incentive to look for other means to accomplish your goals? It’s also disrespectful to the animals who are sacrificed because it assumes the loss of their lives has little meaning compared to the greater good.

Q6. Are there viable alternatives to animal testing in diabetes research? Which do you think are the most promising?

I’m no scientist, and I would refer people to HSUS for information.

Note: According to HSUS, there are numerous promising research alternatives: pancreas transplantation, human stem cell research, organs-on-chips, and genetic research, which are briefly described below. With these developments, there is hope of relying less on animal models.

Pancreas transplantation is perhaps the most obvious alternative, although the availability of healthy tissue and the difficulty of growing such tissue in a lab have created obstacles. A more promising alternative is stem cell therapy, which involves reprogramming human stem cells into pancreatic beta cells. Stem cells are much more widely available than healthy pancreatic tissue, and they can model an individual person’s existing cells. (However, regulatory bodies would likely require testing on animals before approving the therapy.)

There have also been advances in laboratory techniques to create “organs-on-chips.” This involves growing human cells on tiny silicon chips, which can be joined together to allow different organs to communicate, as they do internally in a healthy body. A chip model for diabetes patients joins the intestine and pancreas. If glucose is added, then the intestine-on-a-chip responds by releasing a hormonal signal, which acts on the pancreas to produce insulin. “This sort of approach could be really helpful in letting scientists look at the effects of different drugs on insulin release, and is much quicker, probably cheaper and more relevant to people (as it uses human cells) than using animal models,” says an HSUS representative.

Finally, there is increasingly more human-based research on diabetes, thanks to scientists’ realization that the symptoms and outcomes of the disease significantly vary from one person to the next. There is more attention to the role of genetics in the incidence of diabetes, and such genetic research is simply not possible using animals.

Q7. I imagine that there are a lot of individuals out there who share your dilemma. They need insulin to survive, but they care greatly about the abuse and mistreatment of animals. What can these individuals do to minimize the impact of research on animals?

It’s a tough position. You feel so helpless. I would say, first, learn all you can about the alternatives. Second, talk about it to people in your healthcare network and others. You raise awareness and may discover some support for you, personally, and for your concerns. Third, contact organizations that may be looking for volunteers to get the message out. Doing something positive is, in itself, good and may help alleviate conflict, even guilt.

Q8. What do you think about the recent debate regarding anthropocentrism and animal rights? In academia, for instance, a lot of people are critical of the humanist impulses that underwrite animal rights movements. These critics say that animal rights advocates tend to prioritize those species that are more human-like (dogs and chimpanzees, for instance) while disregarding other organisms and forms of life (bacteria, for instance). Where do you stand? Should we take into account the moral rights of single-celled microorganisms, etc.?

I think this has more to do with the pursuit of consistency for its own sake than moral integrity. For me, there are two criteria that underlie any decisions about animal use in experiments: pain and purpose. Does the animal experience pain? Does the animal seem, to our limited understanding, to have a purpose to his/her life, to follow imperatives to reproduce, to protect itself from danger, to function in the natural world? These considerations should shield animals from use in research. I would add that these critiques from academics seem overly intellectualized and possibly designed to protect their status quo. If you can spare any animal pain and a blunted, purposeless life, isn’t that a great thing, even if there are inconsistencies in how your ethics are applied?

Q9. What else should readers know about diabetes and animal research?

I imagine many people share my initial reluctance to look at this issue. If you have a life-threatening illness and a scientific advance allows you to live longer and with fewer complications, I don’t think you have a choice to accept or reject it based on how that advance was made. It’s a helpless state, and no one likes to feel helpless. But it can be worth experiencing that discomfort and doing the requisite discovery to find that there are alternatives to animal use in research. Even an intellectual alliance with alternative methods—whether or not it leads to action—can decrease our helplessness and open the door to change. Awareness is important, both in itself and as a first step.

Suggested reading: Film Probes Banting’s ‘Complex Motivations’ and Capacity to Abuse Animals

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Audrey Farley is a former editor of Insulin Nation.

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