Helen Dunnett

We want new medicines but at what cost?

Helen Dunnett October 31st, 2011 2 Comments

Breast Cancer awareness ribbonOctober was something of a disease awareness bonanza: it was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it featured World Arthritis Day and gave us the annual World Mental Health Day, amongst others.

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?

Comments - we recommend you read our code of conduct

  1. Response from Sarah Clayton on April 20, 2012

    We can develop new medicines at no ethical cost at all,we have the technology to replace animal testing now.The only people putting the brakes on this revolution,are companies making money from animal testing now.They don’t want to buy new equipment and retrain their staff,so they are gripping on as tightly as they can.This is at a cost to public health and the suffering of millions of animals every year.It should be outlawed,but because the government never researched if animal testing is effective they are not in a position to outlaw it.The government is being held hostage by the large pharmaceutical companies that were established years ago,and have not kept up to date, and are only in it to make fast money.

    • Response from edteam on June 12, 2012

      Hello Sarah, thanks for commenting, sorry for the delay in responding. Let me say that your views are widely held by the general public. As the editor of Animal Testing Perspectives, I have posed these same questions to biomedical researchers and pharma scientists around Europe (not to be confused with cosmetic or toxicological researchers). Like you, I wanted to know why we are still using animals in 2012 when surely alternatives to animal testing were available? I also felt that using animals was just an easy and quick option, and I asked why we needed to continue researching, I thought that we knew enough already? And so on…

      Over the past year, I’ve spoken to politicians, government officials, animal welfare experts, vets, academics and of course researchers and I keep hearing the same response. A) Our current medical knowledge and technology isn’t reliable enough to try new drugs directly on humans, b) Everyone tells me that working with animals in research, isn’t 100% accurate, it’s a very time consuming and a costly process but it’s the best approach we have today to protect humans. I’m told it takes on average 10 – 12 years to get one drug to market, costing around 100 million euros c) And with regards to the government, from what I understand, their primary focus is to protect humans from harm and the use of animals in research is law around the world. Governments needs to be 100% convinced that a non-animal alternative is effective, in fact more effective than animal testing, before they remove it from the process.

      When I read your comment, I feel you haven’t been given all the facts. So I put the question back to you Sarah, would you be interested to hear what is really happening in the pharma labs around Europe? And what would it take for you to believe and trust their responses I get for you? Give me your questions and I shall endeavor to get your questions answered on camera.

Post Comment