When you read the words animal testing, do you see a basement laboratory filled with cages and white lights and Josef Mengele up to his elbows in mutilated monkey faces looking for new drugs and foul profits? That’s what I see sometimes too. This doesn't mean we're fucking babies who can't handle a bit of blood. We’re just not into animals being bred just so they can feel pain and be killed. But what if we were into that? What if we were the kinds of people who, in practical terms, torture cuddly animals for science? Could we sleep at night? It was with this question that I talked to a pharmacologist named Swetha Murali who’s involved in animal research at the University of Sydney. We talked ethics, sciatic nerves, and miniature guillotines.
VICE: Hi Swetha, can you tell me about yourself?
Swetha Murali: I have a degree in biomedical science. At the moment I work in neuropharmacology so I investigate opiods and other novel ways to treat chronic pain. I guess the last 4-5 years I’ve been involved in animal research.
So what have you been working on recently?
The last study used 16 rats. We were working with venom peptides from cone snails in Queensland and investigating how their individual neurotoxins can cut off certain pain. To do this we induced pain in rats by surgically attaching a ligature to their sciatic nerve, which is a big nerve that runs down their legs. The rats then developed mild pain, but certainly not intolerable, and we administered the venom peptides to see if we could divert that pain.
Why use rats instead of computers?
Because you can’t study pain without animals. When you’re in pain there are several changes occurring to your nervous system and we don’t fully know what those change are. We just can’t use computer modelling because it won’t even come close to the complexity of what we’ll see in the animal model.
And that means hurting animals. How do you reconcile this in your own mind?
The way I reconcile this with myself is that the suffering is never severe. I know this sounds like a cop-out but we do try our best to minimise the suffering. As a scientist we just try and use the most humane model possible. Most labs in first-world countries operate under very strict ethical guidelines. It’s probably a bit like judging modern clinical tails against stuff the Nazis did or what the American government did in the 50s. I think there’s a real hangover from the sort of questionable practices that were around 50 years ago, probably even up until the 80s. Having said that, I don’t know what ethical framework labs in India or China operate under.
Do you have a pet?
Yes, I have a cat and I really love animals, believe it or not. His name is Liquorice and he’s about five. I’d like to have more but inner city living in Sydney isn’t very conducive to that. He’s brilliant and I love him.
Do you eat meat?
Yes, I do eat meat. I was brought up as a vegetarian because my parents are Hindu but I started eating meat a few years ago because I’m a heathen.
Do you think animals perceive pain in the same way humans do?
I think some animals do. I think primates perceive pain in a more psycho-social sense where they actually feel depressed and want to be alone. I think other animals don’t. For example mice aren’t social in a human way and that’s why we can’t use them to study a lot of pain conditions. This is why I use rats. They’re much more social animals. I don’t think many animals consider pain as depressive as we do. I think they consider it as more a disability to be overcome. At the end of the day though, I’m never going to be a dog or a cat or a rabbit so how I will never know but I think we can know how it affect their mood and life.
Does it affect your mood and life? Do you feel differently coming home after a day of animal surgery?
Yes of course. Any day where I’ve had to anesthetise half a dozen animals is emotionally draining. You never want an animal to die when you’re performing surgery but at the same time you’re very much aware that what you’re doing is potentially painful. So absolutely. I think you’d have to be a very cold and emotionless person to do this work and not feel anything.
And just to be clear on this, after each experiment you euthanize all the animals?
Yes, we euthanize, or sacrifice the animals at the end of each experiment. In the experiments that I do we need to use their tissue so I can’t pull bits of an animal’s central nervous system and then sew it back up. It’s not going to live after that.
How are they sacrificed?
They get put in a bell jar filled with isoflurane, which is an anaesthetic gas used in animal surgeries. So they basically get an overdose until they’re in a really deep sleep. They’re still breathing but very slowly and deeply. Then we decapitate them using a small animal guillotine, believe it or not, which is a tiny guillotine designed specifically for rats and mice. All the bodies are then frozen and sent off to be incinerated.
I guess that’s better than hitting them with a hammer. Can you name some medicines that wouldn’t exist without animal trials?
I think all the statins, which are blood pressure medications, wouldn’t exist without animal trials. Also a lot of cancer drugs.
What’s the biggest public misconception about your work?
The biggest misconception is the idea that animal systems are useless. That’s completely wrong. A lot of the time they use examples like penicillin, which rodents are allergic to, as a reason why tests on animals can’t be translated to humans. This of course, is a very incomplete argument.
Last question: are you a good person?
Yes, I think I’m a good person. I’m not a cunt to anyone; I have friends so I’m not some sort of social retard. I look after myself and I don’t do anything malicious so yes, I’d say that I fulfil the one human commandment of don’t be a cunt.