Given my interest in issues around animal testing, these timely reminders of the burden of disease got me thinking about the contribution that research has made to human health.
Survival rates from breast cancer have been improving for 30 years due in no small part to basic research using animals. Cancer is still to be dreaded however outcomes are much more promising than in the past and anti-cancer treatments are becoming more targeted (and so have fewer side effects).
These days it’s not uncommon to find cancer patients who want to be enrolled in phase III clinical trials so they have a chance of benefitting from the latest innovation medical science has to offer.
They believe new anti-cancer treatments, like chemotherapy, are safe – because they’ve been tested on animals – and they hope the drug will help prolong their lives.
What about non-fatal diseases?
Okay, so cancer is often put forward as a case where the deaths of animals in the lab ultimately helped prevent the deaths of people on oncology wards, albeit not in equal number.
But what about diseases like rheumatoid arthritis (RA)? This is a disease which too often strikes women in their prime. Statistics of woman effected vary slightly but stand at about 75%, compared to 25% of men. Unlike cancer, diagnosis of RA is not received as a death sentence – but it is a prescription for misery, pain, and a dramatic decline in quality of life.
Here we’re talking about a disease which is not immediately life threatening but which can prevent a young mother from playing with her children or heap severe strain on entire families.
Less than a decade ago, a new class of so-called ‘biologic’ drugs – monoclonal antibodies – arrived in doctors’ arsenals. Early work in this field was done using antibodies from mice and rats, and even now some of the human antibodies used in these therapies are produced using transgenic mice.
These drugs changed people’s lives almost overnight. Men and women with RA who could barely move – who couldn’t make a fist let alone drive to work – were given back a large portion of their independence.
‘Something must be done’
When we hear patient stories during awareness days/weeks/months, the visceral reaction is often to say “something should be done about this”.
Indeed it should. But what do we mean when we demand action? That science should find a cure or a treatment to end the suffering? Do we presume that this will involve animal research and, if so, are we okay with that?
So, dear reader, the question to you is:
How do we weigh animal suffering against the burden of human disease?
Is it okay to sacrifice animals to cure cancer? What about arthritis? Or depression? Or restless leg syndrome?
There’s no easy answers – but what’s yours?