Lilly shareholders to vote on ‘near-drowning test’ in animals, other proposals in May

Should pharmaceutical companies ban the so-called “forced swim test”—a laboratory procedure in which mice, rats, hamsters and other small animals are placed in beakers full of water from which they can’t escape and forced to swim in order to avoid drowning?

A national animal-rights groups is turning up the pressure on Eli Lilly and Co. to ban the procedure.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, better known as PETA, has placed a proposal before Lilly shareholders that requests the company to implement a policy to not fund, conduct or commission use of the test.

Lilly disclosed the proposal on Monday in a government filing. Shareholders will vote on the measure at the company’s annual shareholder meeting on May 6.

PETA said drugmakers use the test in developing antidepressants, and calls the procedure “fantastically cruel.”

Under the forced swim test, animals are given an antidepressant and are dropped into a tall container of water, filled partway with water. “Terrified that they will drown, they swim frantically trying to find an escape,” PETA wrote in its proposal. “Eventually they become exhausted and stop struggling. It causes substantial distress and is not required by the government to be conducted.”

PETA said the testers record the amount of time the animals spend struggling versus the amount spent floating. Testers often attribute the floating condition to an animal that has “given up.” The longer an animal spends struggling indicates a less-depressed animal, PETA said in a December blog post in Scientific American.

Lilly responded, in the filing, that it shares PETA’s concerns about the care and welfare of laboratory animals, and has implemented “detailed processes and procedures to ensure the humane treatment of animals.”

However, it is urging shareholders to reject the proposal, saying it could hamper important tests.

“If adopted, in certain circumstances the proponent’s policy could impede our ability to conduct the pre-clinical testing required to ensure our pharmaceutical products are safe and effective for human use,” Lilly said in the 94-page filing, called a preliminary proxy statement.

Pre-clinical testing is a stage of research, including animal testing, that begins before drugs are tested in humans.

Lilly also said that where animal research is required, the company seeks “to take every reasonable measure to reduce the number of animals used.” It said it monitors animal research through its internal corporate Animal Welfare Board, Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees and veterinary oversight at its research-animal sites and at contract laboratories.

PETA’s proposal did not say how many animals Lilly used for forced swim tests, or how recently it has conducted the tests.

PETA said that none of the compounds tested by Lilly since 1993 using the forced swim test are currently approved to treat human depression, “which means that the test did not lead to marketing these compounds as medications.”

Lilly is not the only drugmaker to come under PETA’s review. Last year, it also called for Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb and AbbVie to abandon the forced swim test.

PETA said that the drugmakers have subjected at least 5,461 mice, 1,066 rats, 748 gerbils and 305 guinea pigs to the test during the past 30 years, as documented in 45 published papers and 16 patent applications.

In a victory for PETA, Chicago-based AbbVie Inc. (maker of anti-inflammatory drug Humira, cancer drug Imbruciva and other drugs) became the first pharmaceutical company in December to officially say it would not use the forced swim test.

In other proposals before Lilly shareholders:

•    Lilly is recommending that shareholders eliminate its classified board structure, under which directors hold office in staggered three-year terms. If successful, the measure would allow for Lilly shareholders to elect all directors every year. (The measure has received a majority vote six times in recent years, but failed to garner the required 80 percent approval.)

•    Lilly is recommending that shareholders eliminate all “supermajority” voting provisions, which require 80 percent approval. Such measures that currently require supermajority votes are for removing directors and entering into mergers with a “related person.” (Like the measure above, this proposal has received a majority vote several times in recent years, but failed to garner the required 80 percent.)

•    The National Center for Public Policy Research is proposing that the company annually disclose all lobbying payments as well as its policies on political lobbying. Lilly is urging shareholders to reject the measure, saying it currently publishes a “substantial amount of information” on its lobbying efforts

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