For several years now, there has been a carefully planned, well-financed animal rights movement whose goal is the reduction and ultimately the elimination of the use of animals in research. There is legislation now before Congress that would divert 30 to 50 percent of the budget of the National Institutes of Health to a search for alternatives to the use of animals in research. Its backers claim that animal research is of little value, that modern techniques of tissue culture and computer science make animal research unnecessary, and that individuals engaged in such research are callous and unnecessarily, even deliberately, cruel.

These views bear little relationship to reality. It would be difficult to think of a significant advance in medical treatment in this century that did not involve animal experimentation. New developments ranging from the discovery of insulin to heart and kidney transplantation have required extensive use of animals.

Diversion of more than $1 billion toward developing alternatives to the use of animals cannot help but slow the discovery of new medical therapies and jeopardize the programs ably fostered by organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

If we are to reduce sharply or eliminate animal research, it is essential that we fully understand the costs and consequences. I do not refer to dollar costs, which are important, but to the costs in human suffering by those who have, or who may develop, diseases for which we have inadequate treatment. As a neurologist, I know that my patients with presently incurable diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, would pay the price.

The closer a proposed therapy is to human use, the more likely it will require animal research. Where feasible, appropriate alternatives are already used. For example, some new drugs are designed on the basis of theoretical considerations, and initial testing carried out, using techniques that do not involve the use of live animals. However, after the new compound has been produced, its toxicity as well as its beneficial properties must be determined. No new drug can be used in patients until it has been extensively tested in animals. There is no reasonable alternative to such testing. Tissue culture, even an extensive series of tissue cultures, cannot come close to mimicking the complexity of the interactions that occur in the intact animal. Few, I think, would advocate the alternative of testing in humans. Adequate alternative testing methods, if feasible, are at least decades away, not just around the corner.

The day is long past when unnecessary suffering can be inflicted on animals in a medical laboratory. Regulation of animal research is already extensive. Caging and housing facilities must meet standards higher than those required of a practicing veterinarian. There are many regulations relating to proper anesthesia and post-operative care to prevent unnecessary pain, and responsible investigators do everything possible to minimize pain.

In addition, each institution must have a committee, including at least one veterinarian, whose responsibility is to enforce the guidelines. Since any institution may have its federal funding cut off if even a single investigator in the institution fails to adhere to the published guidelines, there is strong pressure to comply.

It is clear that we must make a choice--between continued steady medical progress, with the appropriate use of research animals, or a sharp drop-off in progress while funds are diverted to the search for alternatives to animal research, a search that may well take decades and will never fully succeed. The resultant human suffering and death that the latter choice entails is, to my mind, unconscionable and unthinkable.