Most Animal Research Studies May Not Avoid Key Biases

© Armin Rodler/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

© Armin Rodler/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A recent article in Science Magazine reveals that the majority of animal research studies are not protected from the kinds of biases that are routinely guarded against in human research, thereby often leading to misleading results. For example, a large number of seemingly successful animal studies reported on in scientific journals are, in reality, either impossible to replicate in larger animal studies and/or in human clinical trials. This means, in turn, that many drugs tested on animals may appear to be much more effective for humans than they actually are.

Neurologist Malcolm MacLeod of the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences (University of Edinburgh) conducted an analysis of 2500 journal articles and discovered that that the bulk of animal studies on drugs for the treatment of eight human diseases failed to adopt and/or address their implementation (or lack thereof) of four essential measures required to prevent the presence of biases in research: randomization (to indicate that both the random and control groups are not manipulated to produce desired results); blinding (so that the researchers do not know what animal(s) underwent what procedure); calculation of sample size in advance (to prevent accumulation of data until desired outcome is achieved); and statement of conflict of interest(s).

These measures are standard practice in human research but are not as yet required in animal research, which suggests that a double standard is in place and that animal experiments are not subject to the same degree of scrutiny as human clinical trials.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

Canadian Doctors and Nurses Significantly Overestimate the Value of Animal-based Biomedical Research

Unsure Doctor Clipart

A recent study (open access) of Canadian pediatricians and nurses notes that “health care workers (HCW) often perform, promote, and advocate use of public funds for animal research”. Because health care professionals have an important influence on public perceptions of animal research, their advocacy is important for the animal research industry.

The purpose of the study was to investigate whether health care professionals are in fact well-informed about the nature of animal research – its scientific rigour, and likelihood of translating into human health benefits. The study found a significant discrepancy between the beliefs of doctors and nurses, and the reality of animal research. Health care professionals significantly overestimate the scientific rigour of animal-based research, and significantly overestimate the likelihood that animal research findings will translate to human responses to drugs and disease. In other words, health care workers regularly promote the benefits of animal research, but their advocacy is based on serious misinformation.

The study also found that if health care workers were better informed about the realities of animal research, they would withdraw their support.

“An Insufferable Business: Ethics, Nonhuman Animals and Biomedical Experiments”

Image taken from Lomir Biomedical's catalogue.

Image taken from Lomir Biomedical’s catalogue, supplier of a range of equipment for animal experimentation.

Why do researchers and biomedical labs continue to use ‘animal models’ in the search for knowledge about human disease despite ethical concerns and widely-reported scientific shortcomings of much of this research? Why aren’t more researchers switching to the newer approaches and technologies which show promise (e.g. human tissue engineering, computer modelling, big data epidemiology, etc.)?

Part of the answer concerns vested economic and career interests. Individual labs and researchers have been established and trained for research using animals. That’s the science they know, and they can’t easily switch over to entirely new technologies. For them, humane alternatives present an obstacle and a threat to their careers and expertise.

But it’s not just researchers who have vested interests in continuing to experiment on animals. In “An Insufferable Business: Ethics, Nonhuman Animals and Biomedical Experiments” (pdf), sociologist Kay Peggs describes the many businesses involved in the billion dollar animal experimentation industry:

“Research establishments, scientists, regulators and persons that inspect laboratories for compliance, those associated with granting licences, companies that sell nonhuman animal subjects and that supply equipment for the research and corporations that market the resulting products are among those that benefit financially.”

As Peggs notes, companies specialize in making customized animals (like OncoMouse™), as well as all of the equipment needed to breed, transport, warehouse, feed and restrain animals at universities and other research locations. They make an array of specialized equipment from guillotines for be-heading mice and rats to “undershirts” for holding electrodes, connectors and other equipment in contact with a dog’s skin. All of these businesses stand to lose if animal experimentation is phased out in favour of ethically and scientifically superior alternatives. These businesses aren’t driven by the search for knowledge, let alone ethical considerations. Their only focus is on the bottom line — protecting the status quo and its lucrative markets for their products and services.

“Animal Model Research: The Apples and Oranges Quandary”


Photo by Flickr user Novartis AG

Faunalytics has brought attention to Kenneth Shapiro’s paper “Animal Model Research: The Apples and Oranges Quandary” published in 2004 in ATLA questioning the scientific validity of animal models for biomedical and psychological research.

Based on a host of background research, the author lists three ways that animal models fall short in terms of validity:

1. An animal model is never finally or fully validated.
2. Even an animal model for which some degree of validation has been demonstrated is not necessarily a contribution to understanding or treatment effectiveness.
3. Most animal models in biomedical and psychological research are not validated, even in the limited sense described.

With these three statements in mind, the author remarks that it is vitally important to understand animal models “a) in actual practice; b) as presented in the media and white papers by animal research advocates; and c) as they are supposed to work.” According to the author (and, it should be noted, many anti-vivisection advocates) there is a disconnect among these three.

If the animal models have limited validity, “the animal model is limited to a hypothesis generator. It is a locus of discovery not a locus of justification.”

Given that those hypotheses can be generated through a variety of alternative models (such and computer and mathematical models), and given that using animals implies virtually all the time a violation of their basic rights, there is still less reasons to use them in science.

Read the rest of the summary on Faunalytics and the original paper here.