On June 4th 2013, Elias Zerhouni, a former Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) made some comments at a Scientific Management and Review Board (SMRB) meeting that were reported in NIH Record as follows:
“We have moved away from studying human disease in humans,” he lamented. “We all drank the Kool-Aid on that one, me included.” With the ability to knock in or knock out any gene in a mouse—which “can’t sue us,” Zerhouni quipped—researchers have over-relied on animal data. “The problem is that it hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem…We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.”
This comment has been used by many animal rights activists to claim that animal research does not work. Here is a selection (many more examples exist):
How much of this comes down to Zerhouni playing fast and loose with words, and how much comes down to the interpretation of the NIH Record reporter is unclear, but now we can clear this myth up for good.
The National Association for Biomedical Research, a national organization which provides the unified voice for the scientific community on legislative and regulatory matters affecting laboratory animal research, wrote to Zerhouni to ask him to clarify his previous comments at the SMRB meeting. His response is very clear (full letter below):
I understand that some have interpreted these comments to mean that I think that animals are no longer necessary in medical research. This is certainly not what I meant. In fact, animal models and other surrogates of human disease are necessary — but not sufficient — for the successful development of new treatments. In short, animal models remain essential to the basic research that seeks to understand the complexities of disease mechanism. [my emphasis]
We, at Speaking of Research, could not agree more. Animal models are essential to developing new medicines. They are, obviously, not sufficient – cell cultures, human studies and computer models (among others) are also crucial methods used alongside animal models.
Zerhouni’s original point in his talk was that more human studies were needed earlier in the drug development process – to help pick “winners” among promising research in animals (not all of which will successfully translate into humans).
We would like to thank NABR for taking the time to write to Zerhouni. Hopefully, this clarifies his position, and the quote he’ll be remembered for will not be about “kool-aid”, but that he “can say unequivocally that animal research remains indispensable element in improving both human and animal health”.
Correction: The letter to Zerhouni was sent by the National Association for Biomedical Research, not their partners the Foundation for Biomedical Research.