An article published in December in the British Medical Journal (the latest in a long series of similar sceptical studies) suggests that using animal-based drug testing to predict human outcomes is no more accurate than tossing a coin. The study found that only half of the categories examined actually succeeded in predicting the results of subsequent human trials, and even then, "the quality of the experiments was poor".
This helps to explain why, time and again, drugs that were deemed safe during animal tests have harmed or killed humans. Extensive animal tests on Vioxx did not reveal that people who take the drug have double the risk of a heart attack. Animal tests did not reveal the dangers of Phenactin, E-Ferol, Oraflex, Zomax, Suprol, Selacryn - the list goes on - all of which had to be taken off the market. Ninety-two out of every 100 drugs that pass animal tests fail in clinical trials in people.
The reason for these failures is no mystery. Studies published in recent years have shown that primates suffer increased stress when they are handled by humans, restrained for long periods of time and subjected to painful experiments. This causes wild variations in respiration, heartbeat and the release of hormones which render data questionable.
Consider too, using any non-human animals to study human
ailments is problematic simply because every species is
unique. Metabolism, biochemistry, genetic makeup and
expression and physiology are all different. Though all
species share some physiological traits, even minor
differences in physiology can lead to profound differences in
disease pathology, treatment effectiveness and treatment
safety - making it impossible to extrapolate research results
from animals, including primates, to humans.
The National Cancer Institute in America, for example, uses human cancer cells, taken by biopsy during surgery, to perform first-stage testing for its new anti-cancer drugs. Private companies are developing three-dimensional computer models that can predict a chemical's effect on all the body's organs, as well as 3-D tissue models of eyes and skin made from human cells. Today's buzzwords are microdosing, nanotechnology and biochip - not "monkey".
Oxford University could help lead the way to what is clearly the future by using its funds to establish a world-class medical imaging and research centre. The explosion of imaging techniques over the past decade (functional MRI being but one) has, by itself, made experiments on non-human primates obsolete.
All the genetic manipulations and wishful thinking in the
world will not turn a monkey into a human being. It is time
for animal experimenters to admit this and to start pursuing
research methods that will help - not harm - desperate human