The student group Compassion, Awareness, and Responsible Eating for Farm Animals (CARE) hosted prominent animal rights activists Alka Chandna and Thomas Hartung as part of the Alternatives to Animal Testing Symposium in the Glass Pavilion last Thursday, Oct. 24. Chandna is vice president of laboratory investigations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Hartung is the director of the Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT) and holder of the Doerenkamp-Zbinden Chair in Evidence-based Toxicology in the School of Public Health.
Junior Lana Weidgenant, CARE co-president, was one of the main student organizers of the symposium. She explained how the symposium relates to the $850,000 that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded to CAAT in early September to study ways to reduce vertebrate animal testing.
“Since the EPA is working on a timeline to end animal testing by 2035, I think that it is important that Johns Hopkins, as a leader in science innovation, is thinking about these new methods that are going to be the future of science,” she said in an interview with The News-Letter.
Chandna opened the symposium by asserting that animal rights are predicated in science. She cited studies which suggest that animals are sentient, feel pain and are capable of complex emotional behaviors.
“The idea of animal rights is that we should consider all the abilities and attributes of animals when we decide what our relationship with other animals should be,” she said.
Chandna then described a few campaigns that PETA launched to end certain animal testing experiments in research labs. For example, PETA took action against a lab at Hopkins which researched how owls selectively attend to certain stimuli.
Chandna said that PETA commissions both internal and external experts to perform a scientific and veterinary survey of a lab before they launch any campaigns.
“[The critique] is the bedrock of every single one of our laboratory campaigns,” she said. “And then we do everything that PETA is infamous for — the demonstrations and bringing in celebrities and creating gimmicks to get the public’s attention.”
Afterward, Hartung presented some of the work that the organization has done and provided specific examples of alternative methods to animal testing.
Hartung described what he called exponential progress in the fight to move laboratories away from animal testing. But, as he explained, hundreds of millions of lab animals are still used in laboratories.
Hartung believes the limitations of animal testing, particularly the testing of chemicals on mice, usually mean that the costs outweigh any potential benefits.
“We are not 70-kilogram rats,” he said.
Some alternative methods to animal testing are being developed at Hopkins.
David Gracias, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, along with his collaborators at Carnegie Mellon University, are working on a project they call BrainSpheres. BrainSpheres provides a brain micro-environment to test infectious diseases and the effects of potentially neurotoxic chemicals.
Another option for researchers is to use artificial intelligence to predict the biological and health effects of toxic chemicals. Data fusion, or the practice of combining information from existing studies, provides greater predictive power than animal tests, Hartung claimed.
Hartung closed his talk by detailing the ways that CAAT attempts to educate the public, such as through free courses on Cousera.
Overall, Weidgenant said that she felt that the symposium accomplished its aim of educating the public and providing a forum to discuss the controversies surrounding animal testing.
“[The symposium] brought different perspectives on how non-animal methods can be more human-relevant and promising and exciting... for future scientists,” Weidgenant said.
Sophomore Alexandra Balshi, a CARE member, wrote in an email to The News-Letter that she felt that Chandna’s presentation did a good job laying out the essentials of what people need to know.
“[Chandna’s] talk explained how large and tangled the animal testing problem is,” Balshi wrote.