Friday 28 September 2012

Of Mice and Men

By Edmund Lo, S.J.


Ever since the complete mapping of the human genome in 2000, the idea of personalized medicine according to our own genetic makeup has been causing quite a buzz in the field of medical science. Recently, a particular article from the New York Times brought up another kind of “personalized” medicine. In this scenario, the biological sample of our own personal diseases are transplanted into mice, and these animals in turn serve as the targets of drug therapy. If the results are positive, the drugs are then administered to the human patient.

It is a common practice to use animals as a therapeutic model before venturing into human beings, but the idea of using one's own personal disease sample onto the animals is rather novel. It is not the mutated cell-line that has been growing in nutrient-rich cell culture fluids that act as the disease model; it is rather one's own tumour that was just sticking out of the stomach a few hours ago. This is the unique, “personalized” aspect of the approach. The article used cancer as the primary example. Tumours from a specific patient were grafted under the skin of the mice, and different combinations of drugs were administered to them.

This kind of experimental approach has quite a few question marks dangling above it. The therapeutic results observed on animals may not directly translate into positive outcomes in humans. Testing one kind of drug in human subjects is one thing; rushing into a cocktail of drugs without any clinical trials to determine the level of toxicity is quite another matter. This is a hasty and dangerous leap of faith. The goal of this post is not to discuss the experimental design, however; it is to look at how the animals are being perceived.

According to the article, some of the researchers call these animals “avatars”; it is the patient's  physical extension into another world without actually being in it. It is to have the animals as my “avatars”, to carry my disease and be my personal guinea pigs. I am unsure whether having my tumour grafted onto animals would make them an extension of my self. What makes it “personal” is the genetic makeup of the tumour that is only unique to my case, but I am more than just my physical body. The cancerous tumour is physically a part of me, but it is not me. I am more than just a sum of my cells. It does not represent an extension of my being. Perhaps it is one of those imperfect but catchy analogies.

Not surprisingly, the readers' comments of this article were split into two halves: those who are in favour of animal research, and those who are against it. The two groups essentially differ in their understanding of the human person. To the “yay” group, there is something that sets human beings apart from animals that gives us the priority. To the “nay” group, human beings are only different from animals in degree but not in kind, and to set ourselves apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is to be egoistically over-anthropocentric. To this dispute, a Christian anthropological understanding is helpful. We are the reflection of the Imago Dei, made in the image of God. This fact bestows upon us a special dignity that cannot be removed from our human nature. No other creatures can stake a similar claim. This necessarily sets us apart from the rest of creation, and the priority placed on human beings over animals is warranted.

We are indeed head and shoulders above the rest of creation, but the Lord also calls us to stewards of creation. It doesn't mean that we are now on the same level as other creatures, but it does mean that we do not abuse our freedom exploiting the rest of creation. It calls for a sensible treatment of animals, especially those used for medical research. We use them for our ends, but they should be respected inasmuch as possible. They are also God's creatures, after all. This would include adhering to the animal protocols that are approved by the ethics board of the research institute, so to minimize the needless suffering and sacrificing of animals. This is a more nuanced response, but I do think that our God-given dignity should not be confused with unbridled freedom and domination. We are called to exercise responsible stewardship over all of creation, whether it be towards the environment or animals.

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