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Vol. 12, No. 4, 2013
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

is engineering animals ethically correct?



Emily Anthes, journalist and author. In her new book, Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to BioTechnology’s Brave New Beasts (Scientific American/Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2013), she explores the fast-moving field of animal biotechnology. This emerging science finds ways to clone, genetically modify, and otherwise engineer animals’ bodies to make better food products, new medicines, healthier pets and work animals that are specially suited to meet a wide range of human demands.

Biotechnologists’ research around the world has already led to a multitude of improvements to both human and animal life. But the progress comes at a price: Animals are exploited and sometimes subjected to great pain and distress, either as test subjects or as finished products. Genetically modified farm animals that produce better beef but suffer debilitating physical ailments are among the less-savory anecdotes that Anthes relates to readers in her book. Anthes is all for innovations that help people and animals alike. But she urges science and society to come to terms on some sound ethical parameters for using animals without abusing them.

She discusses her book and her observations in the following interview. Conducting the interview was Rick Docksai, associate editor of World Future Society. Originally published on and used with permission from the World Future Society.

THE FUTURIST: You expressed a concern that scientific research-and-development has been progressing with too little thought to the animals that are being used in the process. As you said, in response to an audience member’s question:

I am a science geek, so I read a lot of science news. And over the years I would find myself clicking on stories about glow in the dark this or remote controlled that, all these things that science was creating that involved animals. But there wasn’t a much discussion about what it meant for the animals themselves, what was being done to them.

Perhaps Franeknstein's Cat will be a help in getting some meaningful discussions on these issues started. Would you say that’s one of your motivations for writing it?

EMILY ANTHES: Yes, and I realize that my book will not be the final word on this subject. Science is moving fast, and some people will disagree with me about the conclusions that I draw. But I do hope that it will at least start the discussion.

THE FUTURIST: How challenging will it be to regulate the science, at the national or international level?

EMILY ANTHES: It’s going to be very hard to keep tight controls over these things. And a lot of countries haven’t decided whether and how they want to regulate these biotechnology products. So it’s difficult to tell what kinds of legislation that individual countries will end up with.

I do believe that there are some international accords on animal welfare, but that’s as far as we can expect international agreement to go, especially when some of these applications are products that could make certain countries more competitive or wealthier than others.

THE FUTURIST: North America and Europe are generally cautious on animal biotechnology, as you note in your book. But what would be some parts of the world that you see moving more quickly ahead and maybe even taking the lead on this new science?

EMILY ANTHES: I think there are a couple of places where we are seeing people move forward, in Asia especially: South Korea, China, and India. There are also some countries that are moving forward quickly -- and this surprised me -- in South America, such as Brazil and Argentina.

THE FUTURIST: Brazil and Argentina make sense, actually, when you consider that both countries are heavy exporters of beef.

EMILY ANTHES: That’s true. And also, Brazil has become competitive in the area of genetically modified crops, and they see animal products as a natural outgrowth of that, and as another chance to become even more competitive. To them, animal biotechnology represents even more of a growth opportunity.

THE FUTURIST: Let’s talk now about the subject of pets. You have some interesting examples in your book of how animal biotechnology stands to boost pet health. For example, there are those researchers who have been mapping the physical ailments that each dog breed is prone to suffer, and the specific gene sequences behind each condition.

EMILY ANTHES: That’s true. Each breed, there have been these analyses, and each one is prone to certain problems. It’s hard to keep track of which breed is prone to which problem.

THE FUTURIST: You discuss, in your book, people cloning their pets in hopes of resurrecting them after they die. But what about the potential for simply lengthening the pets’ life spans? People have been living longer and longer over the past century thanks to advancements in medicine. Veterinary practice has surely come a long way, too. So how likely is a cow or dog today likely to live longer than a cow or dog living in the 1920s? On the same token, how much longer might a cow or dog living in the 2080s live?

EMILY ANTHES: That’s an interesting question. I haven’t seen any statistics on how longevity has changed. But I would imagine that, certainly with companion animals, it has increased. We can now give dogs chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants, and other treatments that weren’t possible decades ago.

THE FUTURIST: Using animals as test subjects may be a necessary prerequisite for many medical applications. Still, as you note, research on animals can lead to products that benefit animals and people both. How often is it that study of one species results in something that improves the health of another?

EMILY ANTHES: I think that often is the case. So we might use animals to develop a therapy for a human medicine, but then we find that what we develop for human medicine can be useful for veterinary medicine. We can think about whether the techniques that we develop in human medicine can be applied back to the animals, and vice versa.

And lots of standard medicines, like antihistamines, were developed for humans but can be used in pets. Lots of them cross species boundaries.

THE FUTURIST: Your book opens with Chinese experiments that deactivate individual genes in individual mice, and a few mice exhibited disorders of one kind or another. Perhaps therein might lie a path to discovering some insights into similar disorders in people and in other animals, and how to treat them.

EMILY ANTHES: I think it’s certainly possible. One of the mice that we developed might be a good model for OCD (Obsessive–compulsive disorder), so that could be used to develop a treatment for OCD. That would be useful for dogs and humans.

THE FUTURIST: Dogs get OCD, too?

EMILY ANTHES: I don’t know if they get official OCD diagnoses. But some dogs do exhibit OCd-like symptoms. And veterinarians do prescribe Prozac and other anti-anxiety drugs for dogs.

THE FUTURIST: Animal-rights activists certainly would claim a stake in all of these discussions. Some people would argue, though, that the animal-rights movement has a weaker voice than it did decades ago, and that this is partly due to the more prominent animal-rights groups taking on stances that are too extreme for most average adults to get behind. PETA, for example, calls for veganism, but most people are not going to go vegan any time soon. Nor would most people endorse many animal-rights advocates’ demand that all research on animals stop. You write in your book of the middle ground that most people take, and of the need to work out parameters for that middle ground to take. What are your thoughts on this?

EMILY ANTHES: I don’t know that I’ve seen it losing its voice. It seems like there s more interest now in animal rights, in some ways, than there has ever been. But at the same time, a lot of people don’t take these extreme positions. They’re not vegans. And groups like PETA aren’t going to have a lot of buy-in with general society, as a result. There is a need for more nuanced positions and discussions. Most people do care about animals, but they also want to see cures for cancer and other diseases.

THE FUTURIST: NIH and other research institutions are trying to reduce the use of animals in research. But maybe we won’t be able to eliminate it altogether. What are your expectations?

EMILY ANTHES: There are, absolutely, people who are trying to replace animals with computer models and simulations. I think there are instances where we can replace animals in research, but it’s hard to imagine that we can do everything that we want to do without a biological system to do it.


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