July 5, 2016

Animal Studies: Handle With Care

Scientists have cured [insert disease here]…in mice…again. But what about us?

Many health headlines have a hidden caveat that the reported breakthrough is still at the laboratory level, yet to be tested on actual humans. New treatment approaches typically go through repeated and increasingly rigorous tests using animal models before they reach clinical studies in humans, with many potential therapies rejected along the way. Indeed, the transition from animal studies to approved therapy can take decades.

But that doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and say “this is too preliminary.” Animal studies are crucial to the development of treatments, and you'd be hard pressed to point to one medical therapy used today that didn’t involve animal studies. Vaccines for polio, cholesterol-lowering statins, L-dopa for Parkinson's disease, the cocktail of drugs that have made AIDS a manageable disease… these all have their origin in animal studies.1

So, how can we relay the exciting news of a real scientific advance without instilling a sense of false hope in people who live with the particular disease or condition being investigated and desire relief today? It strikes at the heart of our principles of trust.

Readers of press releases and news reports would benefit from a clear statement up high that the study was done on animals. This need not diminish the news value if placed in the proper context of why the study is important and how it can lead to insights into disease progression or reversal.

It's also worth remembering, and stating, the purpose of animal studies. Scientists are quite aware of the common criticism that a human is not a giant mouse. Yet animal studies are not performed with the assumption that what can work with a lab animal will work with a human, fingers crossed. Rather, animal studies are performed in a way that can tightly control nature and nurture—that is, the genetics and environment of the test subject. Humans are quite diverse. Mice, fruit flies, zebrafish, and other model organisms, however, can be bred to be nearly genetically identical and can be given the same food on the same schedule in the same kind of housing. Thousands of them, generation after generation, can be studied across their full, natural lifespan.

This consistency in study design helps scientists more quickly zero in on the probable causes for various diseases and conditions. So while the cure for diabetes in mice might not lead to an immediate cure for diabetes in humans anytime soon, scientists nonetheless are chiseling away at the causes (and eventual treatments) of a disease.

Have you found yourself a bit sheepish about clearly leading with the fact that a study is based on animals and is years away from human testing, for fear of selling your story short? Send us some examples of how you “handle” animal studies. E-mail us at sciencehealthandpublictrust@mail.nih.gov.

1 https://grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/air/AnimalResearchFS06.pdf