Last week the world celebrated an historic medical research milestone, the 50th anniversary of the polio vaccine. But Hollywood glitterati — including Alec Baldwin, Noah Wyle and Emmylou Harris — dishonored that life-saving moment by celebrating another milestone — the 20th birthday of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). This is an organization which opposes the very research that made the polio breakthrough possible.

In 1949, Science magazine explained to readers that animals (including mice, oxen and rhesus monkeys) were needed in every phase of polio research. Polio researcher and Nobel laureate Frederick Robbins later wrote that “all we learned about the disease came from studies with animals.” And Albert Sabin, the biomedical research veteran who developed the oral polio vaccine, wrote in 1992 that animal experiments “were necessary to solve many problems before an oral polio-virus vaccine could become a reality.”

Mainstream medical professionals understand that today’s animal-research models are crucial to finding tomorrow’s cures. The American Foundation for AIDS Research funds these tests. So do the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, the Alzheimer’s Association, the March of Dimes, the American Red Cross, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (Race for the Cure), the American Lung Association, the National Kidney Foundation, and on and on.

PCRM advises the public to withhold donations from all of these charities, and nearly 100 others. In order for humans to live, some animals must die. But this group has decided such a trade-off just isn’t worthwhile.

Taking this position requires willful blindness. Researchers whose work called for the use of animals have received 69 Nobel Prizes in physiology and medicine. One of these awards went to the scientist who laid the foundation for everything we understand about mad cow disease.

Animal research has led to vaccines for rabies, smallpox, rubella, measles and anthrax. Insulin diabetics owe their quality of life to animal models — which also brought us heart bypasses, organ transplants and the minimally invasive surgical techniques we now take for granted.

Throw it all out, says the Physicians Committee. These advocates of “responsible” medicine view research like this as “unnecessary.”

If this anti-science position sounds familiar, it should. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) — those protest-happy lunatics who believe your life is worth no more than that of a cow or a chicken — have a sympathetic take on nearly every message PCRM promotes, including a “do not donate” policy toward health charities that fund animal research.

PCRM founding president Neal Barnard, a psychiatrist with no medical practice, is also president of the PETA Foundation (which owns PETA’s real estate and manages its books). PETA has steered more than $1.3 million to PCRM so far. Animal People News, an insider publication for animal-rights activists, writes that the PETA Foundation exists primarily “to enable PETA and PCRM to evade public recognition of their relationship.”

So, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is really an animal-rights front group wearing the sheep’s clothing of the medical profession. And “responsible” medicine apparently means no animals may be harmed to save the life of your child, your parent, or your spouse. How could doctors write such a prescription? Very few do, which is why people with no medical degrees comprise more than 95 percent of this group’s membership.

The animal-rights theme carries over into PCRM’s activism on food issues as well. Dr. Barnard has written that feeding kids meat and milk “is a form of child abuse.” He has also compared meat-eating and milk-drinking to smoking. In a 2003 FDA hearing, he tried to convince federal regulators that cheese was (literally) an addictive narcotic, calling it “morphine on a cracker” and “dairy crack.”

PCRM’s animal-rights sympathies are clear. Some of its most public figures have participated in PETA’s naked street protests, acted as spokespersons for “direct action” protesters outside research labs, sued school districts over field trips to the rodeo and threatened lawsuits against dairy producers.

At a recent animal-rights convention, one activist (then a PCRM spokesperson) even endorsed the idea of “political assassination” directed at doctors who test tomorrow’s miracle drugs on animals. Dr. Jerry Vlasak was billed on the “Animal Rights 2003” conference program as a PCRM representative. Dr. Vlasak spoke his mind, and it wasn’t pretty.

“I don’t think you’d have to kill — assassinate — too many vivisectors,” Dr. Vlasak told a room full of activists, “before you would see a marked decrease in the amount of vivisection going on. And I think for five lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million non-human lives.”

The misnamed Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s dream of prohibitions against beef, chicken, pork, fish and cheese are merely irksome to Americans who see through its clever disguise. But the group’s agenda for the future of medical research makes it particularly dangerous. Its birthday is no cause for celebration.