Outdated science is holding back medical breakthroughs
- Published: 14 November 2009
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Drugs tailored to a person’s specific genes would eliminate side effects, but this medical utopia demands human-based research, not animal-based models, writes Dr Ray Greek.
With publication of the human genome in 2003 and various other genomes since, scientists continue the voyage of evolutionary discovery first undertaken by Charles Darwin over 160 years ago aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. The more scientists study the natural world, the more they learn about how similar animals and humans are . . . and how different.
We all evolved from a common ancestor hence we have properties and traits in common. However, we also evolved in different environments and have evolved along different paths for millions of years, hence species demonstrate profound differences.
The Human Genome Project has had vast implications for medical research and practice. Science now understands why even identical twins do not suffer the same side effect from a drug and why one twin will suffer from a disease but the other will not. A growing list ties specific genes to specific diseases, putting us in the slipstream of a fast-moving promise to revolutionize medicine.
This should soon give us advances in everything from Huntington’s disease to hair loss. Imagine the end to adverse drug reactions. Side effects could become but a blip in medical history. These are the promises of personalized medicine. Ready for all this? Well, we’re still waiting . . .
Our epoch is rife with possibility. Even so, too little is happening. Fewer new drugs are being approved every year while more and more are being relabelled or withdrawn.
Adverse drug reactions remain a leading cause of death in the United States, greater than traffic accidents, greater than guns. 100,000 a year. With stats like this, who can take medications with confidence? And what is standing in the way of consumers and their promised high-tech cures?
Beagles are the canine most widely employed in animal experimentation. As lab animals, they’re as numerous as macaques, though outnumbered by mice in the billions. Whatever the species, lab animals are the basis of a myth perpetrated as reality – by industry, politics, funding agencies, law, spin doctors, education and economics.
That myth is this: Animals make valid predictive models for human medical responses. This myth is a falsehood, as revealed by overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Society is on the verge of having medicines designed for the individual; no more one-size-fits-all with all the resulting side effects. But this utopia is being held in check by outdated science and a bunch of ineffective, even dangerous conventions that rely on the animal model. Animals simply cannot predictive human response to drugs and disease.
Because of research in evolutionary biology and empirical evidence, we now understand why this is so. In a nutshell, each species is different. While that may seem obvious, it took scientists decades to process that intuitive observation and conclude that experimenting on animals was not the best way to find cures for humans.
Not surprisingly, animal-based researchers, animal breeders, lobbyists, research institutions, politicians and public relations firms have as their first priority – not public health and safety – but the defense of their salaries and jobs. Americans themselves must insist on a lot more innovation for the $30 billion-worth of research that the National Institutes of Health awards each year.
Our long overdue “personalized medicine,” tailored to each patient’s specific genes, demands human-based research.
All families, all consumers, all patients, should demand an end to using animals as human surrogates because human-based research is the only way cures to AIDS, cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases will ever be reached. The vested interest groups, not surprisingly, remain entrenched with the animal model.
This community parries assaults about the applicability of animal experimentation with a barrage of data, inscrutable to most audiences. The failure to push for and capitalize on the marvelous opportunities afforded by the Human Genome Project might be defensible if the research dollar amounts had fewer zeroes and if so many lives did not hang in the balance. But it is not.
Many unsuspecting people regard animal experimentation as a “necessary evil.” They remain unaware that a large-scale, many-tentacled travesty is keeping them from real cures. Animal experimentation parallels the energy industry. Oil lobbyists have made sure their industry gets all the tax breaks, all the contracts, and all the research money.
Meanwhile businesses with terrific, more sustainable energy sources were sidelined because they did not benefit from the same prioritizing. The same predilection saturates medical research.
Pharmacogenomics, toxicogenomics and other exciting frontier methodologies could significantly reduce the time and cost of new treatment development, not to mention rendering them more effective and more safe. Problem is that the whole drug development apparatus is caught in a tragically ineffective, government-funded hoax.
Applications for animal-based NIH funding are peppered with promises of predictive results. Hundreds of millions of lab animals and tens of billions of dollars later, a prospective medication makes it to human clinical trials.
Ninety-nine percent of the time the hoped-for drug does not deliver as predicted. 99%! What happened? Consumers – with our 25,000-some genes about which scientists now know quite a lot – are being played for suckers.
The burden of responsibility for change is on not just the scientific community, but also on the justice system, regulators, legislators, the media and those who vote with their wallet, in other words, all of us.
Beagles, mice, monkeys, cats, and myriad other animals have things in common with humans. They are sentient, have hearts that pump blood and livers that metabolize drugs. But they cannot predict what a drug or disease will do to humans. For that reason alone, they should not be so used.
It is well past the time when researchers should have abandoned animals and started using reliable, ethical, predictive human-based methods to find cures for diseases.
Ray Greek MD is cofounder and president of Americans For Medical Advancement (AFMA), a not-for-profit based in Southern California. He has two new books being published at the end of 2009.
Animal Models in Light of Evolution is written for the science-educated audience. This book is meant for people with doctorates in some area of science or the very motivated lay reader. Conversely, FAQs on the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the Scientifically Perplexed explains, explains in an easy to follow format, why animal models are not predictive for humans and answers other questions commonly encountered by people advocating for animals.
You can learn more about AFMA and Dr Greek’s books by visiting the AFMA website.