Recent headlines about Italian, Caterina Simonsen, crediting
her life to animal experimentation is a sad reflection of how the public are
misled into believing that animals are necessary for medical progress.
Ms Simonsen, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder which requires her to use oxygen tubes to breathe, stated "I am 25 thanks to genuine research that includes experiments on animals” and that "Without research, I would have been dead at nine. You have gifted me a future."
The reality is, that whilst animals are widely used for medical research, they are far from being an appropriate model, and certainly could not be credited for any ‘breakthrough’. The genetic, anatomic and metabolic differences between humans and other animals mean that any data obtained from animal tests cannot be translated to humans with sufficient accuracy. Even when genetically modified, there is no single animal model that can accurately mimic the complex human situation. There are far too many unknown variables that cannot all be accounted for.
According to Food and Drugs Administration (FDA – the United States regulatory authority) nine out of ten drugs deemed “successful” from animal experiments fail in human clinical trials. What other industry boasts a 90% failure rate? There are also cases of safe and efficacious human pharmaceuticals that would not pass rigorous animal testing because of severe or lethal toxicity in some lab animal species. It’s therefore worth considering those drugs that failed animal tests which may have worked in humans. Could we have inadvertently discarded a potential cure for cancer?
Penicillin, blood transfusions, Digitalis and Iron Sorbitol were all delayed for many years due to misleading data obtained from animal experiments. Further catastrophes caused by our reliance on animal data include Thalidomide, Clioquinol, Diethylstillbestrol (DES), and more recently, TGN1412 and Vioxx.
There will always be examples whereby researchers will claim that animal experiments were integral to specific discoveries. That’s not to say however that such discoveries (and arguably more) could not have been made by other means, which of course would have been pursued had animals been taken out of the picture. Additionally, many discoveries were made by non-animal methods, and later experiments on animals served only to convince scientists that these earlier breakthroughs were correct.
Whilst it could certainly be challenged whether any benefit has ever arisen out of animal experiments, it’s worth considering an interesting analogy made by U.S. Dr John McArdle, who said “Historically, vivisection has been much like a slot machine. If researchers pull the experimentation lever often enough, eventually some benefits will result by pure chance.” Such logic however, does not constitute good science. My own analogy is that relying on animals for medical research is like relying on the lottery as an investment strategy.
Without knowing the details of Ms Simonsen’s illness, it would be safe to assert that mice were indeed involved in the discovery of her treatment, but one would need to draw a long bow to conclude that the mice were an integral, or even necessary part of the discovery. Her treatment is therefore available not because of animal experiments, but despite them.
For too long, victims such as Ms Simonsen have been clinging to the false promise of a miracle cure - unfortunately based on animal experimentation.
It’s absolutely essential that we move away from antiquated research using animals and instead embrace the emerging technologies - mathematical and computer modelling, microfluidic chips and non-invasive imaging techniques, each of which provide results which are specific to the human conditions being studied. Perhaps with more focus on these species-specific research methods Ms Simonsen would not be relying on her current treatment, she would instead benefit from a cure!