Questioning animal research
The EPA plans to eliminate some animal testing by 2020
The Environmental Protection Agency has a plan to end scientific testing on mammals by 2035, but some researchers and doctors worry humans are not ready for the change.
The plan calls for cutting mammalian testing by 30 percent in 2020 and eliminating such studies by 2035, except for experiments approved on a case-by-case basis. U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., commended the EPA decision and encouraged more agencies to follow its example: “Animal testing is often cruel and painful, with limited applicability to human health outcomes.”
For decades, the EPA has required animal testing to make sure chemicals meet federal safety standards before hitting the market or being released into the environment. The studies have proven the most effective way to test the possible side effects of chemicals, but they often involve pain and suffering for lab animals.
Laura Vandenberg, an environmental health scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, fears the EPA decision will make it harder to keep harmful chemicals off the market if producers don’t have to test the effects of products on live creatures. “We are going to get caught in a position where we won’t really be able to regulate chemicals in the U.S.,” she told Nature.
Jennifer Sass, a scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, expressed similar concerns that the move will undercut regulations meant to protect humans. The EPA plan could “allow potentially dangerous chemicals to get out there into the environment and into consumer products,” she told Science.
Recent technological advances offer possible alternatives to animal studies. Computer models can predict and simulate the effects of a chemical. Scientists can also use human cell cultures to produce miniaturized versions of vital organs. They place those tiny organs in a computer chip and use them to study the effects certain chemicals would have on the body.
Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, said humans have a duty to treat animals humanely while considering the human benefit of a particular use of animals. He noted most people support the use of animals in medical research to develop new medicines but “oppose dogfighting because it is only about gambling and satiating a blood lust.”
Smith said limiting animal testing as much as possible demonstrates humans’ unique ability to recognize our duties: “We are the only species with moral responsibilities.” But, he noted, research institutes should base decisions about animal testing on our responsibility toward animals, not on the incorrect assumption that animals have inherent rights like people.
Who said science is stuffy?
Last week, in a 29-year-old Harvard University tradition, several scientists won 10 trillion Zimbabwean dollars for their perplexing, unusual, and just plain weird studies.
The prizes, known as Ig Nobels, parody the real Nobel Prizes, and the Zimbabwean cash awards are worth less than one U.S. dollar.
This year’s winning research included a study that found surgeons learn and perform better when teachers use ticker training. The technique, commonly used by animal trainers, reinforces desired behavior by clicking a mechanical device when the animal, or, in this case, surgeon, performs correctly. It’s not quite the same as giving a doctor a treat and a pat on the head, but it still works, said Karen Pryor, one of the researchers. According to Pryor, experienced surgeons traditionally train younger surgeons, and the well-seasoned doctors can be hard on the students. But when trained with a clicker, the young surgeons performed procedures with greater confidence and precision.
Another award went to researchers who discovered that Romanian currency carries more germs than foreign money, including the euro, U.S. and Canadian dollars, and Indian rupees. The researchers found that Romanian banknotes contain a polymer fiber that makes counterfeiting difficult and improves durability but also allows the growth of drug-resistant pathogens.
And, good news for pizza lovers, another award went to Italian researcher Silvano Gallus, who discovered that pizza offers many health benefits. —J.B.
Amateur astronomer discovers comet
Ukrainian amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov on Aug. 30 discovered the second comet ever observed that hails from outside our solar system.
The first out-of-town space rock that scientists observed was ‘Oumuamua in 2017, but they didn’t find it until it was already on its way out of our solar system at 98,000 miles per hour. The new visitor’s size and brightness will make it possible to gather more clues as to its chemical composition. And C/2019 Q4 is inbound, giving scientists more time to study it before it moves out of the cosmic neighborhood.
The comet will come closest to the sun on Dec. 7 and will approach within 180 million miles of Earth on Dec. 29.
“What’s really fantastic is that this thing should be observable for a year,” Matthew Holman, interim director of the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center, told National Geographic. “We get to see one little bit of another solar system, and without necessarily knowing which one it came from. That’s exciting.” —J.B.
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