Mice are the most common subjects of medical experiments. For decades drugs and treatments have been tested on mice before humans. But it turns out that was a waste of years and of billions of dollars, and that the torture and death of countless animals was pointless.
A Ground-Breaking Study
Researchers published a study on February 11, 2013, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America showing that mice’s reactions to inflammatory diseases have nothing in common with human reactions. In fact, when the two species’ responses were compared, “the outcomes appeared to be random.”
Some of the differences, reported by CBS News: humans had more than three times as many genes affected as the mice did, and humans showed genetic responses up to six months after injury, while mice experienced changes for a few days at most.
The study looked at “nearly 150 potential treatments for severe inflammation” that have been tested on mice in a wide variety of gruesome ways, like scalding them with hot water or slicing open their bellies “and reliev[ing them] of a major portion of their blood supply.” All of the experimental treatments this study included looked promising in mice, but not a single one of them helped humans.
The study focused on “three major killers,” according to The New York Times: “sepsis, burns and trauma.” The study’s authors say that their findings raise the possibility that other experiments on mice are equally worthless, including diseases involving the immune system like cancer.
It is remarkable that scientists are only now reaching this conclusion — and that they didn’t bother even to ask the question a few billion dollars ago. Slate reports that the differences between mice and humans’ immune systems and inflammatory responses were obvious:
“If you inject a person with a bolus of bacteria, she might get a fever. Her heart rate could go up, and her breathing might start to quicken. Left unchecked, there’s a chance her body would succumb to inflammation, her organs failing as she dies.”
Do the same to a laboratory mouse and it recovers. To kill the mouse, “the relative dose must be increased a million times.”
One would think that would have alerted scientists that they were barking up the wrong tree with their mouse obsession.
Whether or not they knew about the fundamental defect in their work, scientists are digging their heels in now. The authors of this study could barely get it published as their colleagues united against them and their findings, which should upset quite a few apple carts. The response from publications that rejected the paper: “It has to be wrong. I don’t know why it is wrong, but it has to be wrong.”
Whither Animal Research Now?
The New York Times quotes Dr. Mitchell Fink, “a sepsis expert at the University of California, Los Angeles,” about the study (which he was not involved with): “This is a game changer,” he proclaimed. The Times reported that “medical experts not associated with the study said that the findings should change the course of research worldwide” for some conditions.
Or not. Slate concludes that we are “not yet on the eve of a Great Mouse Reckoning.” It contends that the study’s authors themselves “have no interest in abandoning” mice as “the standard model even in their modest field of inflammation.” No game changing there.
The reason for the inertia is that a line of mice has been bred over 90 years to be nearly identical to each other. That is why that line has “been the subject of a million research papers and will be the subject of a million more. No model organism provides more depth and flexibility. None is as brilliantly efficient.”
So the study’s authors make a modest call for change: “they’d like to ‘raise the bar’ for mouse studies aimed at curing human disease by asking colleagues to show, first of all, that whichever gene or molecule turns up in animals applies to humans, too. This vital step has been ignored for far too long.”
This is astonishing: scientists have been running experiments on mice with the putative intention of applying the conclusions to humans, without even checking to see that humans have the same genes or molecules as those involved in the experiment. It’s as though scientists have abandoned curing humans as the goal of their work. Is their mission now to secure funding so they remain employed? To achieve professional kudos? Science for its own sake?
Wherever their heads are at, animal experimenters need to screw them back on real tight. However “brilliantly efficient” mice may have seemed as vivisection victims, they are not at all efficient at helping cure humans with inflammatory diseases. Researchers: it is time to let go and move on.