The reasons for this are many and varied. For one thing, the low-hanging fruit was picked a couple of decades ago so the diseases for which we now need new therapies are the most difficult to treat. This requires a huge investment of time, effort and resources and call for a more collaborative approach to innovation.
For another thing, the cost of conducting research has risen at a time when the rewards are on the wane. A recipe for new drugs it is not.
Yet the world is facing fresh public health challenges due to shifts in demography and lifestyle. Our ageing population means conditions such as Alzheimer’s will become a much greater burden. At the same time diabetes rates are through the roof in develop – and in developing – countries across the world.
What’s this got to do with animal research?
Glad you asked. This slow-motion crisis is paving the way for new approaches to drug development.
One area which shows considerable promise is personalised medicines. The primary goal of research in this field is to develop medicines which are best suited to individual patients or to particular categories of patients. This would mean, for example, that if you had a certain gene, your doctor would choose the medicine most likely to work for people like you.
The push towards deepening our scientific knowledge in this area is changing how research is conducted. In search of more precise and predictive methods of treating people, scientists are developing new models for testing drugs.
Innovation through collaboration
The need for more open collaborative approaches is spawning exciting public private partnerships like the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI). NEWMEDS – Novel Methods leading to New Medications in Depression and Schizophrenia – a five-year IMI project funded by the EU and pharmaceutical industry is committed to finding new treatments for psychiatric illnesses.
One of the key elements of the NEWMEDS project will be the search for better animal models. ‘Better’ means more accurate and predictive but using fewer animals.
The investment in better animal models which can more accurately represent human diseases should give scope for using fewer animals in the years ahead. Good news for delivering on scientists’ commitment to pursue the 3Rs of animal research – reduction, refinement and replacement.
Diabetes is a case in point. Around 350 million people worldwide are affected by diabetes and this number is rising steadily. Research using animal models has been central to pretty much all the therapies currently available for managing diabetes but the revolution in personalised medicine might help deliver better medicines using fewer animals. This is addressed by another IMI project, IMIDIA.
So, perhaps the headlines of recent years might be caused for concern given the essential role of the medicines sector in improving public health and generating wealth, but the concerted response for public and private players is cause for hope.
Crises can be catalysts for change. In the future, we could have better medicines developed using fewer animals.