With the health food craze in full swing, more Americans than ever before are taking an interest in nutritional supplements, effective diets, and pharmaceutical drugs that promise to offer a better quality of life. Many of these dietary supplements and pharmaceutical drugs have full marketing campaigns behind them, however, and it can be difficult for a layperson to separate fact from embellishment (or an outright false claim). Given that bringing new pharmaceutical drugs to market is now a multi-year, multibillion dollar process, the sources for these drugs (as well as processing and extraction methods) are often closely-guarded secrets held by large pharmaceutical companies. What contributions do animals make to the pharmaceutical drug industry? Are they being exploited, and if so, is there any way for the public to reduce the incidence of animal abuse?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the primary regulatory body for pharmaceutical drug production in the United States. This means that the entire drug production process, from initial research to human clinical trials, is within the scope of the Food and Drug Administration’s jurisdiction. Prior to human clinical trials medical researchers conduct extensive animal testing to ensure that the drug will not be harmful to humans in such a degree that its benefits are nullified. In order to accomplish this, the Food and Drug Administration divides new pharmaceutical drug production that requires animal testing into several categories (Acute Toxicity, Subchronic Toxicity, and Long-term Toxicity, for example). Each of these categories has a strictly regulated amount of necessary animal testing. The FDA regulates both the variety of animal (whether it be rats, hamsters, dogs, rabbits, mice, or primates) as well as the number of animal subjects and duration of the testing.
At the present time both the British Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences support the continued practice of animal testing, positing that nearly all major medical achievements in the modern era relied extensively on animals in one way or another. There is also the stark reality of computational power to consider. For example, computers in use today are not powerful enough to accurately model the complexities within animal systems. This means that drug trials conducted in computer simulations cannot account for all of the variables experienced during animal testing, leading to inaccurate data. Opponents of animal testing, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) contest that many of the methods used during conventional animal testing are now outdated. As computational power continues to advance the medical industry will benefit tremendously from being able to accurately create virtual animal and human systems that mirror their physical counterparts in complexity.