Millions of animals are subjected to experiments every year, but top researchers say curing cancer in mice isn’t helping humans
Last year, in the UK alone, 4.12 million scientific procedures were conducted, using 4.02 million animals. The vast majority (82%) of the experiments were on rodents, but the figures also include 3,554 dogs, 109 cats, 2,468 primates, 138,287 birds and 330 horses.
Current UK legislation states that every drug must be tested on at least two animal species, a rodent and a non-rodent, before being allowed a licence to be used on humans.
Despite the huge number of animals used and the millions of pounds spent studying conditions such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, we are still looking for cures.
The ethical issues around animal experimentation are quite obvious, but many people misguidedly believe that there is no real alternative, and that animal-based research might be cruel, but it is necessary.
But there is growing evidence, as highlighted in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) in May 2014, that when animals are used for medical research purposes, including drug development, they often yield results that do not translate to the human condition.
Over 90% of drugs deemed effective in animals go on to fail in humans. Not only is this an incredibly poor rate of translation, it means that human health is being comprised by relying on animal models to test drugs.
It may come as a surprise to those who argue that the lives of animals have to be sacrificed for the greater good of humans, but there is every possibility that one of the many drugs that has failed in an animal trial, and therefore been discounted for human treatment, could potentially be the one everybody is looking for to develop that elusive cure for cancer.
Due to species differences and other limitations of animal experiments for predicting what happens in humans, many procedures on rats, mice, primates and other animals have produced misleading information. Variations between humans can produce a wide spectrum of results, so using different species to study human conditions undermines the translational value even further.
Dr Richard Klausner, formerly of the National Cancer Institute, said: “The history of cancer research has been a history of curing cancer in the mouse. We have cured mice of cancer for decades, and it simply didn’t work in humans.”
Another Way Forward
Animal experiments are fraught with difficulty arising from species differences and the artificiality of the animal ‘models’ of disease. As such, non-animal techniques have become the cutting-edge of biomedical research. Animal experiments are being replaced by a range of techniques that include the use of cell cultures; molecular methods such genomics, proteomics and metabolomics; microorganisms such as bacteria, amoeba or yeast; computer modelling and complex mathematics; population research and high-tech imaging techniques such as MEG, EEG, fMRI and TMI.
Although many scientists want to adopt non-animal techniques, they face the problem that animal use is historically embedded as the ’gold standard’, whether appropriate or not. The peer-reviewed journals in which they need to publish their work will often want to see how the results of a non-animal method compare to those of the equivalent animal procedure, thus perpetuating the use of animals.
The Dr Hadwen Trust
The Dr Hadwen Trust (DHT) is a charity that specifically funds medical research projects that will replace the use of animals, saving them from the pain and trauma of experimentation and benefiting our health with more human-relevant results. Unlike many of the large medical research charities, the DHT has a pro-active approach to developing alternatives to animal use, focusing on innovative, well designed, non-animal research. The DHT believes that only the complete replacement of animals will lead to technological innovation, advance medical science and provide data that is truly relevant to humans.
Last year, the DHT announced it will fund the world’s first Professorial Chair in Animal Replacement Science. Based at the Blizard Institute at Queen Mary University in London, the post-holder will lead the global development of human-relevant methods and alternatives to animal use in diverse areas of bio-medical research. As well as acting as an ambassador and spokesperson for animal replacement science, it is also intended that the Professor will implement educational programmes specific to animal replacement science to inspire more young people to choose a career in the field. The post will help to firmly root animal replacement science in education, academia and in the medical research arena.
This year, the DHT has focused on embedding animal replacement science into the minds of the next generation of research scientists. Seven UK research projects, to be conducted by researchers at the very beginning of their careers, were awarded funding across the UK. These exciting projects included research into Parkinson’s disease, liver cancer, diabetes, tuberculosis, muscle diseases, schizophrenia and the blood-brain barrier.
The DHT will host its inaugural Animal Replacement Science conference in November in London where scientists will get together to discuss the limitations of using animals in medical research and focus on developing and implementing alternatives for better rates of translation.
Through these initiatives and all its other work, the DHT is spearheading the drive to advance non-animal medical research and to break the centuries-old tradition of relying on animal models to study human conditions when better, more human-relevant techniques and methodologies are available or can be developed. They believe medical excellence can, and should, be pursued without animal use to not only save animals from the pain and suffering of experiments but also to benefit human health with more relevant science.
Since this article was published the Dr Hadwen Trust has changed its name to Animal Free Research UK. For more information please visit www.animalfreeresearchuk.org