The use of animals in research has a long history. It's less expensive, faster (given shorter reproduction times and longevity) and doesn’t put humans at unnecessary risk. But can research findings on animals be applied to humans?
Joseph Garner, PhD, an associate professor at Stanford University, said “no” especially in using lab mice for certain kinds of research.
In an interview with New Scientist, Dr. Garner said, “I think we’ve got ourselves into a mess right now, with lab mice in particular. The benefits to humans, in certain diseases and mouse models, have shrunk to such low levels that it’s time we found better ways to work with animals in medical research.”
Dr. Garner is a zoologist and professor of animal behavior at Stanford and runs the Technique Refinement and Innovation Lab, which provides support services to animal researchers and monitors the well-being of the animals involved.
According to Dr. Garner, one of the biggest concerns is using animals like mice to test medications for cognitive conditions like autism. Social factors may play a role in autism, but human social models are distinctly different from those of mice.
Another issue is that many of the mice are genetically modified or bred to such a level of standardization that they are nearly identical.
Mice, for example, don't get Parkinson’s disease, so researchers have developed genetically modified mice with Parkinson-like symptoms to test the effects of medications. But the mice are not human, don't respond like humans and don't actually have the disease--just some of the symptoms.
Standardized breeding helps remove factors that may affect the outcome of an experiment. In the real world, however, humans are very different. Humans live in different environments, eat different diets and have wide genetic variances. A medication that works in a standardized, genetically modified mouse is not necessarily going to work in a diverse human population.
According to Dr. Garner, one of the reasons new medications are so expensive to test and why so many fail to make it to market is because researchers are studying animal models that don't really mimic human disease. As a result, animal research is not benefiting humans, and there are also ethical issues--scientists are generally in agreement that animal research is only justified when it clearly benefits humans.
A possible solution would be to perform animal experiments as if they were human trials, using animals with levels of variety similar to those in human populations.
“Once you start meeting patients, you realize the urgency of getting this right,” Dr. Garner said.