18:00 PM

An Open Letter from Ohio State University Regarding Animal Use in Heart Studies

An Open Letter from Ohio State University

Recent efforts by animal rights groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), have generated a cascade of emails, phone calls and other complaints opposing a long-running research study into the causes of sudden cardiac death. 

At the root of the opposition is the fact that dogs are, and have been, used as the animal model in this research and that some individuals perceive such use of these animals as cruel and inhumane.  Ohio State has responded to each and every message concerning this research, providing factual information to better explain the value and importance of this work to both human and animal health.

A key to the passion fueling opposition to this work is the misrepresentation that PETA has made of the substance of the research.  By inaccurately defining the work as showing that “exercise strengthens the heart,”  PETA and others are misleading well-meaning and concerned individuals into thinking the research is stating the obvious.  Sadly, hundreds of conscientious citizens have unquestioningly accepted this explanation of the research, seeing the studies as having little value.

In truth, the study is an attempt to understand the biochemical and cellular mechanisms which lead to sudden cardiac death, and to suggest possible methods of curtailing such damage.  PETA’s decision to define the research as they have either shows a profound ignorance of the science involved, or a cold, calculated effort to mislead and confuse the public for its own gains.

A lay explanation of this work – a copy of which PETA has long had in its possession – explains the work fully:

Sudden cardiac death is the leading cause of death in western countries.  In the United States alone, nearly 400,000 people die each year due to this heart disease.  The sudden death in these people results from a change in the normal rhythmic beating of the heart known as ventricular fibrillation.  During  ventricular fibrillation, the heart cells do not act together and, as a result, the heart no longer pumps blood.  If the normal heartbeat is not rapidly restored, death will result in a few minutes.  It is, therefore, very important to understand what causes these life-threatening changes in the beating of the heart so that new drugs or other techniques can be used to prevent the ventricular fibrillation from occurring in the first place.

It is known that sudden death is much lower in individuals that eat meals that have high amounts of fish or other foods that contain a group of fats known as omega-3 fatty acids.  However, how these fats prevent the changes in cardiac rhythm that lead to sudden death are not known.  It is likely that these fats alter the electrical activity of the heart by regulating the movement of potassium and/or calcium into and out of the heart muscle cells.  Therefore, it is the purpose of this study to investigate first, the effects of a diet that contains large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids on ventricular fibrillation and then, to determine how these diets alter the heart cell chemistry to prevent this life-threatening change in the rhythmic beating of the heart.  By understanding how changes in diet can protect the heart, it may be possible to develop better drugs to prevent the development of these fatal changes in the rhythmic beating of the heart.  These new drugs could reduce premature deaths in heart patients.

Uncovering the actual mechanism whereby omega-3 fatty acids provide protection for heart muscle tissue could have substantive health benefits to the thousands of Americans at risk for heart attacks.

PETA, and those who have believed their misinformation, have argued that the use of animals in such research is unnecessary since there are alternatives available.  However, as a matter of routine, researchers are required to search the existing medical literature, prior to their projects gaining approval, looking for previous work which successfully used alternatives to animals.  In the case of this project, researchers searched more than 50 years of references in MEDLINE, PUBMED and the SCIENCE CITATION Index seeking such alternatives and found none.

No alternatives – computer simulations or other techniques – are currently available to replace the use of animals in this work.

Some opponents to this work have argued in favor of the use of humans, in lieu of animals, in such studies but both important ethical concerns and stringent regulatory constraints would prohibit human participation in such studies at this stage.

This work -- as does all research involving animals at Ohio State University -- meets the standards required by federal, state, local and institutional regulations, and operates under the oversight of a federally mandated Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

Ohio State’s animal programs are also fully accredited by the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC).  The University voluntarily submits to this oversight.

Lastly, in 2009, both the federal Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), a part of the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated the research in question and found that allegations by PETA and others alleging wrongdoing were baseless.

We at Ohio State University understand that reasonable people can hold different points of view and we assume that those opposing this research do so with what they believe are the best interests of society at heart.  However, as a major national research university dedicated to the use of science for the betterment of humanity, we will continue to make appropriate use of animals in our research, while at the same time, adhering to all regulations governing the care and welfare of those creatures in our charge.