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It’s time to stop testing drugs on animals and start using better, more modern methods

The Globe and Mail by Lisa Kramer 20 March 2018

Nazi-inspired medical research methods are harming humanity, physically and financially.

Decades ago, in response to horrific medical research conducted by Nazis on prisoners, Western medicine stepped back from human clinical trials and required that animal-based tests occur before people could be exposed to new drugs or treatments. While well-intended, this was a huge mistake. And humans now suffer in myriad ways owing to the continued use of animals in drug development.

Objections to the use of animals in biomedical research and testing usually focus on concerns about animal welfare. No one wants to see rabbits tortured with toxic eye drops. But even ignoring animal-welfare concerns, using animals in drug development imposes significant net costs on humans.

The case for testing drugs on animals rests on the assumption that safety and efficacy for humans can be accurately predicted based on other species’ responses to these drugs. That’s an incorrect assumption. In a peer-reviewed article I wrote with Ray Greek, published this month in the journal Business and Society Review, we cite hundreds of medical studies published in prestigious journals such as Nature, Science, and The New England Journal of Medicine to show that animal models are not predictive of human responses to drugs and disease.

In a comparison between animal-based methods and a purely random method, such as flipping a coin, you’d be better off relying on the coin flip.

Like all animals, humans are evolved complex systems. Just because we’re made up of similar parts doesn’t mean those parts acting in concert in one species behave comparably in another when exposed to a treatment. They often don’t. Different species evolved from different starting conditions, yielding unpredictable differences in the way we respond to drugs, even in cases in which species share a great deal of DNA, as humans do with chimpanzees.

Who suffers from the continued reliance on animal models? Everyone. In our study, Dr. Greek and I considered a litany of stakeholders of the pharmaceutical industry, including patients, doctors, medical researchers, shareholders and employees of pharmaceutical companies, and taxpayers. We find that all are worse off because of the continued use of animals in drug development.

Patients suffer when drugs that appeared safe in animals end up hurting humans. For example, the painkiller Vioxx was linked to tens of thousands of heart attacks in humans after being deemed not only safe in animals but also beneficial to the heart.

Patients also suffer when drugs that appeared helpful in animals end up being ineffective for humans. Researchers have cured cancer in mice countless times, and yet there remains no cure for humans. Likewise, about a hundred vaccines are effective against HIV-like viruses in animals but none work in humans. And more than a hundred drugs developed to treat Lou Gehrig’s disease are effective in animals but not humans.

Another downside for patients is an opportunity cost: effective drugs we might have identified had we not devoted our resources to fruitless methods. Sometimes researchers accidentally stumble on successful treatments that were initially abandoned owing to lack of supportive results from animal models, as happened with both penicillin and the polio vaccine. Unfortunately, due to failures in animal tests, it took decades and countless deaths before the therapeutic value of penicillin and the polio vaccine were recognized. An unknowable number of other drugs may never be discovered if we continue down this debunked research path.

The financial costs are significant, too. Yet effective treatments remain elusive in spite of vast sums having been spent on animal models.

Pharmaceutical shareholders would be better off if firms were released from the burden of testing compounds on animals. No one is suggesting we take potentially harmful compounds and release them on unwitting humans desperate for a cure. Rather, modern techniques such as microdosing permit researchers to identify compounds that are safe for humans. And personalized medicine goes a step further, allowing the development of treatments customized to each individual’s unique genetic makeup. These are not hypothetical possibilities pulled from science fiction; these technologies exist today and are available for application. More would emerge, and quickly, if only regulatory agencies would release drug developers from the costly and misleading requirement to test new entities on animals before making them available for testing in humans.

Conflicts of interest exacerbate the problem. Animal-based researchers whose incomes or reputations rely on the status quo have an incentive to cling to flawed methods. Some such individuals invoke fear in the hearts of the public by claiming a false choice between sacrificing the lives of animals in labs versus losing the lives of sick babies in hospitals. No such trade-off exists. The fact is that we are causing harm to humans by continuing to harm animals.

Proponents of the current state of affairs ignore the underlying science when they point only to success stories where life-saving drugs have emerged from animal-based research. Of course, bad models can accidentally produce right answers. Famously, stopped clocks are right twice a day, but we don’t use them to keep time.

For the benefit of everyone, we must replace animal models with modern methods that are readily available and which offer greater promise for human health outcomes.

Life offers few true win-win situations. This is one of them. Let’s grab it.
Lisa Kramer is a professor of finance at the University of Toronto.