From research tools to patients: animals and the future of medical science

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons

A recent article in The Globe and Mail (by Ivan Semeniuk) discusses clinical trials for new cancer treatments at Guelph and other universities across North America. The patients in these trials are dogs and cats, not humans. Animal companions share our exposure to carcinogens in the environment, diet and lifestyle factors, and, not surprisingly, develop many of the same cancers as we do.

The Globe article focuses on the possible benefits to humans of cross-species clinical trial comparisons, but what’s really interesting is the situation of the nonhuman participants. These dogs and cats are beloved family members, and their participation in clinical trials rests on two very important conditions. First of all, the animals are sick with life-threatening cancers, and stand to benefit directly from the drug treatments they undergo. Secondly, their participation is conditional on consent by their human companions, who can review the risks/benefits of the trial, and ensure that the well-being of their companion is the primary focus and purpose of the treatment (just as parents consent to treatment, including drug trial participation, on behalf of their sick children). It’s important to remember that the dogs and cats are not protected by the same legal framework that protects the rights of human clinical trial participants, and indeed are exposed to unacceptable risks that humans would not be subject to. However, the protection offered by their family status means that de facto, they are more like human patients than the vast majority of animals involved in biomedical research. Most of the animals used in research are deliberately injured, or have diseases deliberately induced. The purpose of the research is not to help them, but to sacrifice them as tools of science. There is nobody to speak up for them, or protect their interests.

Here is what the Globe article says about why research that benefits dogs and cats is more likely to benefit humans than research that harms laboratory-bred mice (note that rats, dogs, and monkeys are also purpose-bred for harmful research):

“Unlike genetically standardized laboratory mice, which are a mainstay of medical research, domestic dogs and cats are more diverse, just like humans. They also share our home environments and, often, our food. Their cancers are equally diverse and naturally occurring, unlike those of lab mice, which have to be deliberately implanted. This makes companion animals far better analogs for human cancer patients.”

In addition, companion animals, like humans, tend to develop cancer as they age, and in the presence of various other health conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, etc. The highly artificial disease status of lab mice is one of the key explanations offered by growing numbers of scientists to explain why biomedical research using “animal models” has failed to provide significant breakthroughs in human medical treatment.

The future of ethical biomedical research is one in which all animals, not just humans, are protected by the laws that currently govern the use of human research subjects. It’s a win-win situation.