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“If you’re hanging onto animal testing, you’re holding us back”

October 20, 2022

By Michelle Mohesenin, Rph

Doctor holding a mouse

A biomedical ethics professor talks about what inspired her to research alternatives to animal testing — and what she has discovered

Dr Gail Van Norman(opens in new tab/window) recalls an experience in medical school that would set the tone for her lifelong interest in biomedical ethics and animal testing:

I was taking a mandatory course in cardiovascular medicine and saw in the fine print there was going to be a lab experiment on dogs — they used to get them from the pound in those days. We were going to give them epinephrine and see what happened to their hearts with an autopsy. But this was already textbook stuff: we already know what happens. So I said I wouldn’t do it because the knowledge that I would gain from that lab was not commensurate with the damage I would do to the animal.

The professor got angry, she said:

He was very defensive and even threatened to fail me. To give you a bit of context, it was in the days of the precursors to PETA that confronted professors at their houses. But in the end, he backed down because I had otherwise perfect marks. But his dogmatic reaction made me angry. And later, fellow students told me they had nightmares after that lab. And this story really stuck with me. 

Gail went on to pursue a varied career, becoming a specialist in medical ethics in addition to attaining board certification in Internal Medicine and Anesthesiology. She is also a widely published author and Elsevier contributor, writing two seminal papers that highlight the shortcomings of animal testing along with alternatives. They were published in 2019 and 2020 in JACC: Basic to Translational Science(opens in new tab/window) in 2019 and 2020 — an open access companion journal to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, published by Elsevier:

“A big shift is about to happen,” she said, in an interview for Elsevier Connect. “At one point, it was perhaps the best we could do. but now we can do so much better.”

Now, as an Emeritus Professor at the University of Washington(opens in new tab/window) in Seattle, Gail continues to get the word out about her research. You can watch her recent webinar “Successful Alternatives To Animal Testing(opens in new tab/window)” as part of the Elsevier Life Science webinar series on animal testing.

Webinars on alternatives to animal testing

Elsevier Life Science has created a free webinar series on animal testing:

“I’m at a crossroads now,” she said.“I’m now officially retired. But official retirement for a physician doesn't mean you quit, it means you cut back a little bit, get paid a lot less and start doing the things you really want to do,” she added with a smile.

If something is broken, fix it

Gail said she’s always been interested in animals. In college, she developed an interest in ethics, which ultimately led to her interest in animal testing.“I grew up with animals and it also relates to my specialty,” she said. “Becoming a clinical ethicist is something I am proud of. Early in my career, I saw problems in the way physicians were dealing with patients on an ethical level. Medical schools barely covered ethics at the time. It was assumed if you went into medicine, you were naturally a virtuous person — we now know that’s far from the truth. Not many people were doing ethics, but those that did were a special bunch. It’s been very inspiring.”Flash forward a few decades, and the impact of Gail’s animal testing articles become easier to explain. For instance, the 2019 article on limitations of animal testing brings together a plethora of studies showing how often animal testing is ineffective. Gail not only highlighted the animal-tested drugs that proved unhealthy for humans but also presented the game-changing drugs we possibly missed when they were rejected because they proved unhealthy for certain animals.When Gail’s articles were published in JACC, the editor was surprised at the response:“When the editor at JACC asked me if I had any article ideas, I suggested animal testing because I thought it was an untouched area,” Gail said. “He was unsure whether there would be any interest but was extremely supportive anyway. And while I did know a bit already, it turned into a wonderful learning opportunity. I get so excited when I get to discover new stuff.“And later, when the papers did so well, the editor wrote to me to say that he would never have thought it would be such a hit in a journal that is 80% animal models.”These papers have become two of the most talked about articles on the subject.

The blind spots of science

So why did it take so long to get this conversation going?“Unfortunately, science can be like religion at times,” Gail said. “The idea that animal research is effective and ethically acceptable dates back to before Descartes. But it wound up as a theology of sorts — taken on faith — that animal testing should precede human testing. Science is wonderful in that you can move forward and learn new things, like we’re doing right now. But sometimes things are accepted without being proven, and that takes a long time to unwind.”Gail sees the shift beginning in the 1950s when a movement began to change perceptions — or at least explore more humane protocols. “I think it's continued to slightly shift bit by bit ever since,” she said. “And now we are at the beginning of a full tilt. We have alternatives that are proving to be effective, so people are sitting up and taking notice.”

When science fiction becomes science fact

Now, the US Congress seems set to pass a new FDA regulation that does not require animal testing(opens in new tab/window) in every drug approval scenario.

Caption: In her webinar, Prof Gail Van Norman, MD, shows the high percentage of drug candidates that do not advance beyond preclinical trials due to toxicity. The chart appears in her 2019 article “Limitations of Animal Studies for Predicting Toxicity in Clinical Trials,” published in JACC: Basic to Translational Science.

"This will represent a major shift,” Gail said. “Similar philosophical shifts are also happening in Europe. And once people see how more accurate toxicity testing leads to quicker drug approval, the transition should only accelerate. It’ll be a big deal.”

toxicity of compounds prior to clinical trials, Gail is now exploring PharmaPendium, which provides precedent data from regulatory documents throughout the drug development lifecycle.

Naturally, Gail is also intrigued by scientific innovations that eliminate the need for animal testing.

“I grew up in an age when there was a lot of skepticism about computers — that they were just games. I certainly had major doubts about their ability to model artificial physiology. But it turns out they are really good at it,” Gail said and chuckled.

“But what really gets my attention is all these organ-on-a-chip experiments. They've created tiny human-like environments where they're testing drugs in the actual cells in which they will occur. I’m sure we’ll find there are limitations, but meanwhile they’re developing entire organ systems that go together on chips. It’s exciting scientifically — at the same time it’s the stuff of science fiction writers.”

Elsevier Life Science’s next webinar, on October 26, relates to this topic: “Successful Artificial Intelligence alternatives to animal testing(opens in new tab/window).”

Percentage of failures chart

No turning back

Gail believes that while animal testing once had its place, it’s now outdated:

I believe we’ve reached the point where if you’re hanging onto animal testing, you’re holding us back. At one point, it was perhaps the best we could do, but now we can do so much better. It’s time to cut the mooring ropes and sail ahead. Certainly, animal testing will still remain relevant for certain cases for some time, but based on the advances of the past two decades, I don’t see any area that will require it in the future.

Unless of course you are doing animal testing for a drug or therapy that may benefit the animal being tested. That will always make sense — whether you are a dog or a human.


Michelle Mohesenin


Michelle Mohesenin, Rph

Product Manager