The Cheat Sheet

Medical research’s animal problem

JINOY JOSE P | Updated on January 15, 2018


Are guinea pigs in short supply?

Supply is not the problem. But substance is.

Explain please…

This week, New Scientist, carried an editorial that pointed towards a critical issue dogging medical research. The article, ‘Man or mouse? Why drug research has taken the wrong turning’, warns that medical experiments are obsessed with genetically modified animals and have lost touch with human diseases. Which means, we are not sure if the experiments we do in, say, genetically modified mice will help us find drugs that work in our body.

What’s the experience so far?

Not so promising. Medical experts such as Joseph Garner say 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. In 2013, Elias Zerhouni, former head of NIH said the scientific community had moved away from studying disease in humans.

Oh, what was his point?

That the ability to remove or replace specific genes in lab animals causes a shift in focus — from people to animals. So, according to Zerhouni, we must stop this and refocus on methodologies for use in humans. Only this approach can help the medical community understand “disease biology” in humans. And only such approaches can help us find solutions to the medical problems we have.

Interesting, but did the research community pay heed to this at least in the US?

Looks like they didn’t. New Scientist says little has changed. It quotes Garner who asked why so few new drugs that get into clinical trials actually make it to the market. He says that one important contributor to this problem is that animal models do not genuinely model human disease.

How bad is the scene?

Granted, there have been huge advances in the last 60 years of commercial drug research and development. But the number of new drugs approved per billion dollars spent on R&D has halved every nine years since 1950. Garner says only about 1 in 9 drugs that reaches human testing phase after having been tested on animals makes it to the market. Even this number is declining. This should make the research community think because it takes some $2 billion to bring one drug to the market, courtesy failed trials on humans.

You mean these drugs fail because they don’t work on humans as efficiently as testing on animals had predicted?

Precisely. To give an example, cognitive conditions is an area where research relies heavily on GM animals. These animals are modified into displaying traits that match ailments such as Parkinson’s or autism. But as it turns out, what ails these animals may not (necessarily) affect humans. So, the moral of the story is humanity is benefiting little from animal research now. And, obviously, the money that it needs to take a drug to the market nearly doubles every 10 years. This should change.


New Scientist has a solution: start conducting experiments on animals as if they were human trials. Which means they should have the levels of variety that are seen in human populations. This is important because the use of GM animals in biomedical research is only increasing and new gene-editing tools have made creating such animals with altered characters much easier and cheaper.

So, it is imperative such aberrations are addressed as soon as possible because costlier research means waste of money and increases the transmission lag between research and reality.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on November 02, 2016

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor