Does animal research produce cures?

May 4th 2021
Allyson J. Bennett and Marcello Rosa

The answer to this question is yes

So why do some groups and individuals opposed to animal research and testing argue no?

Simply put, the answer to the question depends on where you focus  in the timeline of scientific advances that lead to medical progress. If you choose to select only the last step in producing a drug or vaccine, or the last bit of the pipeline prior to a new treatment, you will ignore all of the steps that made the treatment possible. 

It is kind of like walking into the kitchen as the cake comes out of the oven and disregarding growing the wheat, making flour, processing the sugar, the grocery trip, mixing up the batter, acquiring the pan, heating the oven, and so on. We recognize immediately that the cake is an end product that depends on a whole range of other efforts, resources, and knowledge. We don’t expect the company that made the pan to also make the cakes. We realize that creating the recipe included some previous attempts that did not result in a good cake but provided valuable information to make better recipes and future cakes. 

A parallel to the “no cures=worthless research” argument might be to say that scientific advances in basic knowledge of electrical circuits did not lead to anything. In fact space exploration, the internet, and telecommunications as we know it are all possible, at least in part, because of basic knowledge of electrical circuits. (For more on the use of basic research, see Isaac Asimov’s “Of What Use.”)

When we look at medical advances– not only cures, but also treatments that prevent disease, extend lives, and reduce suffering– we see the same thing. Medicine offers many examples. As we have pointed out previously, our ability to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine within a year depended on decades of animal research into other coronaviruses including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), along with decades of prior research into mRNA vaccines—all of which depended on animal research. 

Applying the odd logic and limited lens of the no-cures-from-animal-research crowd, we could examine the origins of a broad range of medical advances. For instance:

Neurochemistry

  • 1930s-50s. The work of Vittorio Erspamer, Maurice M. Rapport, Arda Green, Irvine Page, Betty Twarog, and others produced the discovery of serotonin and description of its presence in the mammalian brain. Arvid Carlsson discovered dopamine and identifed its role in movement. Carlsson shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with Paul Greengard and Eric Kandel “for their discoveries concerning signal transduction in the nervous system.” None of the basic discoveries immediately cure anything. All depend on various animal studies.

Was it worthless?  Only if we think that the medical advances that depended on knowing about neurochemistry are worthless. A broad range of treatments for depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, Parkison’s Disease, and other disorders are but a few examples. The common foundation is discovery and basic knowledge about the use of chemical signalling in the body and brain.

Genetics

  • 1950s. Work by Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, James Watson, Francis Crick produced an elucidation of the structure of DNA. The latter three received the Nobel Prize in 1964. No immediate cure results from the work. 

Was it worthless?  Only if we don’t value a broad range of medical advances and scientific discoveries. Consider only a couple of recent advances.  We know, for example, that some of the COVID-19 vaccines make use of mRNA. We also know that  CRISPR-Cas9, the work for which Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020, is now advancing diagnosis and treatment for a range of health conditions, including sickle cell disease. The common foundation is discoveries and basic knowledge about DNA. 

Packaging of DNA into the nucleus
Packaging of DNA into the nucleus. Credit: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

What does this mean?

In short, it means that cures, medical advances, and scientific discoveries are not simple.  The final stage of production and human clinical trials for treatments are often years or decades from the basic scientific advances that provided the necessary foundation. 

No cures” fits neatly on a protest sign. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us what we need to know to make informed decisions. For that we have to dig deeper and think about how medical advances come to be—what is involved across the entirety of the pipeline. 

We’ve proposed a new labeling system for medical products that would help consumers find out how animals are involved. We invite those opposed to animal research and testing to join us in campaigning for the change. 

And next time you hear someone say “animal research results in no cures” ask them this: Where exactly did the cure come from? What had to be known to arrive there? And what if ending animal research ends the possibility of future cures? Answer that while thinking carefully about who will be affected. 

While it may be tempting to think that enough progress has been made, current and future patients suffering from injury and disease not yet understood or cured would likely disagree. Paralysis offers just one example. And whereas no single animal study about spinal cord repair can guarantee a cure, it is fairly certain that paraplegia and tetraplegia will continue being problems for the foreseeable future, unless we continue basic research.

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